The 1867 tsunami described in the previous chapter was, as the world has recently witnessed, scarcely an unusual event. Nor was the scene of destruction that followed. Elsewhere in this book we emphasize how the world’s rush, since the 1950s, to expand the size of cities has been driven by an increase in global population. Like a box with flexible sides, the city expands to embrace all those who favor the convenience, bustle, and economic opportunities of urban life. When lateral expansion is no longer feasible, as in the walled holy city of Bhaktipur in Nepal, or the confined economic and cultural island powerhouse of Manhattan, the city expands upward. When both lateral and upward expansion are confined, the size of dwelling units inevitably contracts. Few citizens leave these urban black holes, and when they do, they invariably choose to swell the ranks of another city. Yet one other type of place on our planet has beckoned since ancient times—coastlines of continents, especially the earth’s temperate and tropical shores. It has been estimated that 400 million people live within 20 meters of sea level and within 20 kilometers of a coast, many of them within a few kilometers of the beach. Precise numbers are difficult to pin down because census compilations rarely list a household’s height above sea level or its distance from the sea. Some idea of mankind’s curious predilection to gravitate shoreward can be obtained by viewing the earth from space on a moonless night. Seen from above, the coastlines of continents and islands are illuminated festively by electric light bulbs. The attraction here is not so much the views nor even the fish: coastlines are trade routes and, being the termini for the world’s rivers, streams, and subsurface aquifers, are nearly always endowed with a bountiful supply of freshwater for agriculture, as well as for thirsty populations and industries. This, of course, is why many of the world’s largest cities are seaports: London, New York, Karachi, Calcutta, Hong Kong.
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