The Beginning

The Mega-Cities Project was conceived by Janice Perlman at UC-Berkeley in 1984, incubated at the New York Academy of Sciences from 1985 –’87; hosted at New York University’s School of Public Affairs and Urban Research Center at the invitation of then Dean, Alan Altshuler. It was officially incorporated as a non-profit charitable organization [501©3] in 1988 with its founding Board Members and the mission statement: “to shorten the lag time between ideas and implementation in urban problem-solving.”

The idea grew from putting together ideas and insights from experiences in diverse places and times, including those below: .

  1. The advent of the megacity: In 1985 Prof. Perlman who was teaching at the graduate school of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley received a fold-out map showing the location of the 23 cities around the globe whose projected populations would reach or exceed 10 million each by the year 2000. She was struck by the location of those large red dots and how evenly they were arrayed around the regions of the world.
  2. Response to the ‘urban explosion’: As the person teaching Comparative Urban Studies she was designated to receive Mayors, City managers and urban planners /professionals when they came to DCRP desperate for ideas on meeting the needs of their rapidly growing populations.These decision-makers faced very similar challenges, but did not have any way to learn from each other’s experience (pre-internet).(This was confirmed a few years later by a Roper+Starch Leader’s Survey in 11 of the mega-cities.)

    What she had written about as policy and program ideas to cope with the so-called “urban explosion”, she had learned from observing what people were already doing to manage their situation as newly arrived migrants from the countryside.

  3. 25-year time lag between theory and practice: (knowledge and action). Years after, Janice Perlman was commissioned to write a paper tracing the interplay of research on informal settlement and the evolution of public policy. She found a clear pattern of 20-25 years elapsing between research results /new knowledge and change in public policy.
    • It took that long for governments to stop the massive removals of squatter settlements and begin a few brave pilot projects using on-site upgrading.
  4. Spreading the seeds of change:. In the mid 1970s she spent a semester going across the USA in a van with a photographer to learn what kinds of community organizing and action were emerging in urban communities in the wake of the mass mobilizations of the 1960s. She visited 16 states and some 60 organizations– learning about direct action, community-owned development enterprises and neighborhood government.The Lessons Learned was how disconnected these organizations were from each other and how useful it was for them to learn about similar initiatives elsewhere and be able to share ideas and strategies. In short, spreading the seeds from one activist soil to another was an unintended consequence of the research.
  5. The Power of Partnership: : In 1979-80, in the wake of the NYC fiscal crisis, the most powerful business leaders in Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (industries which could not re-locate) created The New York City Partnership to insure that the city would provide a stable environment to “live, work, and conduct business”.
    • To be effective, partners from government and civil society needed to be included.

    Each of these sectors had a deep mistrust of the others based on negative stereotypes. When each sector had the opportunity to encounter their counterparts in a non-threatening way, respecting their different bottom lines, much common ground was discovered.

    The personality profile of business leaders and entrepreneurs turns out to be quite similar to that of community organizers and they began to respect each other once they saw what was being built in the neighborhoods.

These five experiences gave Dr. Perlman the elements needed to form the Mega-Cities Project.