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Cities are our future — but we must make them work

One of the reactions to the Industrial Revolution, as it began to go full steam ahead in the late 18th century, was Romanticism, a movement that glorified nature and with it life in the countryside. Romanticists were scornful of the mass movement of people to the cities and to the city life the Industrial Revolution brought about. A longing for the splendor of country life, for the vastness of the wide open spaces, is still a sentiment that many harbour. However, all the evidence suggests that the future belongs to cities.
Urban settlements have become the global hubs of economic, social and political activity. In a single location of limited size, which is accessible domestically and internationally, innovation and creativity are concentrated. Self-evidently, this combination has been enormously attractive to all sorts of people from all walks of life, who see it as offering the best opportunity for bettering their lives and are eager to engage with the unfamiliar, whilst also being prepared to tolerate the routine alienation that can also be a feature of life in a metropolis.
Today, two-and-a-half centuries after the Industrial Revolution began, urbanization marches on stronger than ever, and 54 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. According to a United Nations report, this figure is expected to rise to two-thirds of the population by 2050, adding 2.5 billion people to urban life. Most of this increase is likely to take place in Asia and Africa. The future of human existence lies, then, in the towns, cities and megalopolises, but can humanity cope with the challenges that poses?
Goal 11 of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which aim to end poverty and to “protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all,” focuses on cities as hubs of ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity and social development. Yet, while cities generate more than 80 percent of global GDP, allowing innovation and new ideas to create wealth and satisfy human curiosity, they are also responsible for more than 60 percent of global energy consumption and 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and global waste. In many cities, the transportation, sanitation and power infrastructure cannot cope with the growth in population, technological demands and modern lifestyles.

Humanity faces the momentous task of ensuring urban centers are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable so that they can become the new frontier of human development and progress.

Yossi Mekelberg

Moving to the big city appeals above all to the young, who are attracted to the bright lights, but quickly discover that employment opportunities and affordable accommodation are not so easy to find and have not kept pace with a rapidly expanding population. And for the 800 million people around the world who are condemned to live in city slums, life is often a misery and always a daily struggle.
Given that in the next few decades urban populations worldwide are likely to grow exponentially — especially in India, China and Nigeria — planning is needed to increase the benefits emerging from urban life, and counter the drawbacks of congested and often disadvantaged communities chasing ever-dwindling resources. The challenges of congestion, shortage of funds for basic services, and failure to cope with the growing demand for housing, all of which are exacerbated by inadequate and antiquated infrastructures, must be met with an integrated, holistic approach if our cities are to develop sustainably. Cities are in desperate need of constant reinvigoration through fresh ideas and cutting-edge technologies, and this in turn requires a constant stream of new, young and diverse blood; but regrettably our cities are becoming less and less hospitable to youth and diversity.
Some of the challenges that cities face are inter-related. People move to them in droves in the hope of finding employment, but there is a big mismatch between job creation in cities and job losses elsewhere. Consequently, many end up unemployed or trapped in low-wage occupations. Unemployment, when combined with inadequate housing, puts severe pressure on public services and also results in increased crime, which is a major challenge for cities, especially the big ones. And if crime is a social consequence of population density, cities also face the wrath of nature. Since more than 90 percent of all urban centers are located in coastal areas, it is estimated that 650 million urban inhabitants are at risk of floods, freshwater scarcity and other ecological and economic hardships resulting from climate change, including air pollution. Moreover, conflicts and political instability have pushed about 60 percent of the world’s 14.4 million refugees and 80 percent of its 38 million internally displaced persons to live in urban areas, creating further pressure on resources and infrastructure.
Attention is mostly paid to the megacities such as Tokyo, with 38 million inhabitants, followed by Delhi, with 25 million, or other cities in which more than 20 million people reside, such as Shanghai, Mumbai, Beijing, or the New York area. But there is also a wide range of urban settlements with fewer inhabitants that are growing at a faster rate than the megacities, and they face similar issues in terms of long-term planning.
The mirror image of the rise and rise of urbanization is the concurrent decline in the world’s rural population, in relative and even absolute terms. This will change, for a very long time and maybe permanently, the relationship between people and nature, and among human beings themselves.
In the meantime, as was recently stated by the World Bank, it remains a momentous task of our generation to build cities that “work.” In other words, cities that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Whether humanity can live up to this task and make cities the new frontier of human development and progress remains to be seen.
  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg