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While many foreigners flock to Bangkok drawn by the lures of favorable exchange rates and lax governmental control over the sex and drug trades, others are brought in under pretense and made to stay against their will. Around 80,000 women and children have been sold into the Thai sex industry since 1990. Women, girls, and young boys from areas within Thailand, around Asia, and as far away as Eastern Europe are forced into prostitution in the red light districts of international “sin cities” such as Bangkok.

Many of the famous “night market” shops in Thai entertainment districts operate legally, and form an integral part of the flourishing Thai economy. Storefronts with gleaming neon lights advertise strip clubs and peep shows, beside tourist traps that offer “traditional” souvenirs and Thai street food. Although seedy, these nightclubs and other operations abide by the letter of the law. There are legitimate aspects of the sex trade in which many adults willingly work, because wages are consistently higher than in rural locales or in other occupations. There are even distinct night markets that cater to local populations.

The Patpong Night Market.

The Patpong Night Market.

The troubling side of the Thai red light district economy is a dangerous, drug-infested underworld, masking widespread human rights abuses and a burgeoning AIDS problem. Thai police struggle to penetrate prostitution rings and questions of collaboration among officials often arise. The temptation of benefits from the 500 billion Thai Baht industry corrupts many an authority figure, and women and children suffer. General unwillingness among policymakers to combat the roots of the problem passively encourage the criminal human trafficking.

Prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1956, but lackluster enforcement on the part of the Thai government and the growing power of transnational criminal networks highlight the fact that human trafficking is still a pressing issue. Simple legislation from the Thai government is not strong enough to end the problem. International efforts to combat the illegal sex trade in Bangkok must be coordinated immediately to end these wrongs as soon as possible.

A view of the Pattaya district at night.

A view of the Pattaya district at night.

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The Dharavi slum in Mumbai, India.

The numerous and growing slums surrounding Indian cities garnered global attention after the smash success of the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. The movie graphically portrayed the dangerous living conditions of a fictional slum outside Mumbai. Though Slumdog had a fairytale Hollywood happy ending, the unfortunate truth is that the harsh life in shantytowns for 22% of Indian urban dwellers. This accounts for 6 million children up to age 6.

In Mumbai alone, over half of the urban population lives in slums that account for barely 13% of the city’s total land area. This fact is representative of the cramped conditions which slum dwellers abide. Slums are regularly razed without warning, leaving thousands of people homeless overnight. Municipal provision of water and other utilities is basically non-existent in the slums, although some enterprising individuals tap local supplies for the benefit of the slum’s “neighborhood.” The uncontrolled nature of slums allows for gang and druglord control, and human rights abuses such as human trafficking are rampant.

Instead of attempting to aid slum dwellers, most city governments adopt a position favoring demolition, and refuse to deal with slum leadership or better living conditions. International humanitarian efforts on behalf of the UN and others failed to address the scale of the problem. As seen with both resettlement and rehabilitation aims, the reach of these programs barely extends to the tens of thousands. Funding and outreach are seemingly impossible without coordination from slum leaders, municipal officials, and international and other nongovernmental organizations.

Slums arise mainly due to the rapid and unregulated nature of urbanization in the Indian subcontinent. Although they are not unique to India, the large population and growing economy there makes Indian slums among the most notorious in the world. If India wishes to continue its dynamic economic transition, it cannot continue to ignore the abhorrent circumstances in which many of its citizens live.

Sanitary conditions inside the slums are poor.

Sanitary conditions inside the slums are poor.

 

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An Aboriginal man walks through the Australian outback.

For approximately 40,000 years before the British colonial settlement of Australia, the country had been inhabited mainly by the many aboriginal tribes of the region. Aboriginal groups emphasized the communal ownership of land and resources, a value that endures to this day. However, these peoples’ claims to the land was overlooked and overruled as white settlers from the British Isles, and later from other regions of the world, arrived en masse. Nearly 200 years after Britain land claim to the region, aboriginal peoples began fighting back, and the land rights movement was born.

Since the 1970s, Aborigines have been able to lodge claims to vacant government land in a legal environment, and have succeeded in regaining ownership of many otherwise unoccupied territories. But a surprising yet crucial gain for this movement was made recently when an Australian federal judge granted Aborigines the “native title” to an area including the city of Perth. This controversial move flew in the face of the conventional Australian approach to the land rights movement, as claims to urban or settled areas are often rejected. Although private property law takes precedence over “native titles” under the Australian system, this ruling does allow Aborigines to take control of public areas such as beaches and parks. It is as much a symbolic victory as a financial one.

Aboriginal claims to ownership are further complicated by the discovery of valuable natural resources in certain native-owned territories. The desire of the Australian state to extract these raw materials for profit and the absence of legal regulation of private companies’ practices in regards to such exploitation forms a worrying obstacle for newly-entitled aboriginal groups.

Racial discrimination against aboriginal peoples in Australia is embedded in the culture, and grew unchecked in many sectors of Australian life until recently. Still, there is much progress to be made. The recognition of the legitimacy of the land rights movement is a major step forward in rectifying this situation.

Island cities face unique predicaments of natural confinement of expansion due to the physical site on which they are located. Hong Kong city engineers confronted this problem head on in 1991 with the construction of the Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA). HKIA is currently the 10th busiest airport worldwide by passenger traffic and the world’s busiest by cargo traffic. However, just twenty years ago the possibility of this hub’s existence was in jeopardy.

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Aerial view of the Hong Kong International Aiport.

As the Hong Kong economy expanded, the city became more densely populated and built up. Additionally, Hong Kong served as a portal to China, which was expeditiously opening up international trade relations. Tall buildings crowded the skyline and one another, jostling for space in the city’s commercial districts. The Kai Tak Airport, built in 1925, was located in the heart of one such district. It claimed just one runway, and was regularly exceeding both its passenger and cargo traffic capacities annually by the 1990s. Due to the changing conditions, the airport would no longer be able to safely support the air traffic flooding the city.

Engineers and city officials set to work on a project estimated to to take 10-20 years and $20 billion to complete. However, an unexpected deadline threatened to shut down the  The authoritative Chinese government was set to assume sovereign control of Hong Kong in 1997, after which the future of the airport’s construction uncertain. Project managers resolved to avoid facing this obstacle altogether by nearly halving the predicted amount of construction time. Construction vehicles arrived on site in 1991.

The airport was built on an artificial island that was created through adjoining two existing islands and raising the sea level. This project added nearly 1% to Hong Kong’s total surface area. However, municipal officials were not content with merely constructing a new airport. They had completely re-imagined a transportation network, which connected the HKIA to mainland Hong Kong. The entire system was completed in 1998, one year after the target, but with fortunately added blessing of the Chinese government. This awesome structure was voted one of the Top 10 Construction Achievements of the 20th Century by the Construction Industry Manufacturers Association.

Plans for further development of HKIA by 2030 are in the works.

The city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia has attracted pious Muslims since the death of their prophet Muhammad in 632 CE. The holy pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj as it is known to the faithful, is a tradition that draws more than 15 million visitors to the city each year. The tourism industry that has sprung up around the city has been a source of consternation among members of the religious community. Due to the authoritative nature of the Saudi government, however, any criticism has been muted.

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A view of the metropolis at night.

As the focus of Mecca has shifted from the spiritual to the material, historic buildings that once held great significance for the Muslim community have been destroyed to make way for high rises and tourist conveniences. 95% of the historic structures in Mecca have been demolished in the past two decades. Although true infrastructure development is needed to support the overwhelming annual crowds, many believe that capitalism has motivated developers going above and beyond. In fact, plans are in place to raze the birthplace of Muhammad to make room for the expansion of the Grand Mosque. In a telling sign of the times, the home of the prophet’s first wife has been turned in to a toilet block.

Another development that has raised eyebrows is the Clock Royal Tower Hotel, which directly overlooks the Grand Mosque. The building is complete with two helipads, 800 rooms, and the second tallest skyscraper in the world. Prices for a one-bedroom studio apartment in the complex begin at $650,000. Such a juxtaposition of conflicting values is angering Muslims worldwide.

As the Saudi government tightens its control over the country, it seems that any voices of dissent will be drowned out by the whirr of construction vehicles.

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Worshippers crowd the Grand Mosque, with the Kaaba pictured in the center.

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A modern map showing the location of Krasnoyarsk within Russia.

Shrouded in secrecy since its birth in 1950, Krasnoyarsk-26 remains a cloaked legacy of Soviet operations during the Cold War. The military-industrial complex that characterized the USSR in the latter half of the 20th century spawned the development of closed cities such as Krasnoyarsk-26 (later renamed Zheleznogorsk) that endure to this day.

The name “Krasnoyarsk-26” is actually a postal code that refers to an area some miles away from the true location of the town. Until 2002 no official census had been taken of the city, though recent official estimates put the population around 85,500 people. When Josef Stalin ordered its construction in 1950, residents were recruited from across the USSR to inhabit the city and staff its military production facilities. In exchange for constant KGB surveillance and heavy isolation, these residents were provided with a high standard of living. Food, wages, and housing in the secret cities were the best in the USSR and thus attracted the best and brightest Soviets. However, the trade-off meant these citizens were subject to extreme control and monitoring on behalf of the government. The concrete wall that surrounds Krasnoyarsk-26 is a staunch reminder of the limits that confronted residents.

All this secrecy was meant to hide the fact that the city was home to a weapons-grade plutonium reactor, one of ten nuclear reactors in Soviet-era Russia. The Krasnoyarsk industry produced enough power to create more than 10,000 nuclear bombs from 1964 until 1998. The plant was primarily used to power the city after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but it was not officially shut down until April of 2010.

With the end of the Cold War and the scaling down of nuclear activities, Russian secret cities are facing many new challenges. Former closed cities that depended on the military-industrial complex for their sustenance are struggling to provide services and jobs to residents whose livelihoods vanished alongside the Berlin Wall. The dissatisfaction that plagues Russia’s top nuclear scientists has the West worried too. The United States has pumped thousands of dollars in aid into these crumbling cities in the hopes of discouraging any nuclear workers from defecting to Iran or North Korea.

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A sign indicating the presence of a nuclear reactor in Krasnoyarsk-26.

The ability to attract large crowds of profligate tourists is normally seen as a boon for cities throughout the world. Tourism often forms a crucial part of a city’s economy and can promote regional cultures positively to the outside world. In one European city, however, this lifeblood is also a poison.

Venice has been a unique city since its inception. First established by the Romans, the city’s influence waxed strong during the Renaissance era and its residents endured conquests from storied leaders like Napoleon before it was incorporated into Italy in 1866. However, this rich history is only one of the reasons why tourists flock to the city. Venice is undeniably best known for its unique architecture: the entire city remains afloat, supported by piles of petrified wood. Venice’s spectacular architecture, charming culture, and unique site draw approximately 55,000 people to its winding canals each day.

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Tourists crowd the Piazza San Marco for the opening of the Carnival festival.

Because Venice’s development is naturally constrained, locals have lived next to tourists and trinket shops since the 18th century. Yet in recent years, tourism in the city has seen a dramatic increase in volume, which has driven up property prices. The constant crowds and lack of economic diversity have driven many locals to the mainland, and in 2009 the native population of the historic city dropped below 60,000. In addition, a quarter of these residents are over the age of 64. These demographic trends cause many to worry that Venice will soon become no more than a museum. In fact, some predict that Venice would have no more full-time residents by 2030.

Venice is a fascinating study in the overlapping and conflicting factors that drive immigration and emigration. It often seems as though the city’s most valuable resources for attracting residents may also be contributing to its abandonment. Government officials and local loyalists are still searching for ways to raise awareness about and combat these concerns.

In my travels through Europe this past summer, I had the privilege of interacting firsthand with local Venetians and gaining some insight on the youth perspective. I stayed in a small hostel that appeared to be a rented out family flat. The young man working there was very friendly and spoke English well. He had heard of Chicago, the city I am from, and named a few of his favorite Bulls players. He told me of his ambition to move to America, like several of his cousins has done. He claimed that there was no future for him in the City of Bridges, despite descending from generations of proud Venetians. America held all the allure of the unknown for him that his hometown held for me. Later during my stay, as I squeezed my way through the packed Piazza San Marco, I found myself contemplating the Venetian dilemma. However, it wasn’t until I happened across another square, far removed from the bustle beneath the basilica, and sat observing a gathering of local teenagers, that I began to understand the strange dichotomy that defines Venice. Local and tourist, opulent and poor, historic and modern, this city’s contradictions are only outnumbered by its canals. And this fact may spell danger for its survival.