Fig. 1. Proposed approach towards co-creating services for citizens
Fig. 1. Proposed approach towards co-creating services for citizens
This post was originally written for the Collective Solutions 2025 blog, a forward-looking study and collaboration platform to explore how the World Bank and similar multilateral institutions can best support developing countries to meet long-term sustainable development challenges in a post-2025 world. Read more about the study and join the collaboration site here.
I don’t particularly like cities. I’m a country boy. But I have lived in cities for the last 35 years; 10 in Bangkok, 15 in Manila, and 10 in Washington, DC (though DC might be called a town if it were in India or China). In the 1990s, I led work on environmental investments in east and south Asian cities. Most of the cities I worked in were severely “under-infrastructured and under-serviced,” and because many of them are built on coastal zones, this was particularly pronounced when it came to low-lying slums, drainage and sanitation. The heaviest price tag was often for drainage and flood control. During those years, I often wondered if and how the city and country leaders would ever catch up on infrastructure needs with the growing urban populations. Many have done well—while others are in worse shape now because they haven’t been able to meet the human tide.
Cities have always been the driving forces of world civilizations. What Niniveh was to the Assyrian civilization, Babylon was to the Babylonian civilization. When Peter the Great, third in the Romanov Dynasty, became Russia’s ruler in 1696, Moscow’s influence began to expand. Peter strengthened the rule of the tsar and westernized Russia, at the same time, making it a European powerhouse and greatly expanding its borders. By 1918, the Russian empire spanned a vast territory from Western Europe to China.
As Peter the Great and his successors strove to consolidate their reign over this empire, major social, economic, cultural, and political changes were happening in the urban centers. Moscow led these changes, followed by St. Petersburg, which was built as a gateway to filter and channel western civilization through the empire. By fostering diversification through connectivity, specialization, and scale economies, these cities started the structural transformation of the Russian empire away from depending on commodities and limited markets in a way that more effectively served local demand.
The Soviet era altered this dynamic.
‘From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!’
That one blue fish cost a million plus,1 that one blue fish and all the fuss.
In cities here and cities there, you’d think by now we’d be aware.
That we’d take some care for what is rare. But here’s another to make you stare:
Soup can come with a shark’s fin; yes, so strange a fin that’s mixed right in.2
So much money is being spent, just how far can we go, and to what extent?
‘Say! What a lot of fish there are.’ Yet there they go near and far.
Tuna, sharks and even rhinos too; all sold in a city near you.
Save a fish, save a tiger, save an elephant or two. Here’s what a kid could do
Shout ‘Oh Mr. Mayor in that great big chair, is your city doing its fair share?’
First the good news: Earlier this month, Mayor Iñaki Azkuna of Bilbao, Spain was awarded the prestigious World Mayor Prize for 2012. Mayor Azkuna was in good company. Other finalists included the mayors of: Perth, Australia; Surakarta, Indonesia; El Paso, USA; Changwon City, Korea; Auckland, NZ; Angeles City, Philippines; Zeralda, Algeria; Matamoras, Mexico; and somewhat surprisingly, Mayor Regis Lebeaume of Quebec City, Canada.
The bad news for 2012 and mayors was best seen in Canada. The World Mayor Prize shortlisting of Mayor Lebeaume came amidst a spate of problems for other mayors in the Province of Quebec. At least four mayors resigned over corruption allegations in Quebec, including Montreal’s Mayor Gerald Tremblay.
Jesus and Muhammad traveled to the wilderness to develop their teachings. Even Gautama Buddha is said to have sat quietly beneath the rural Bohdi tree while he waited for enlightenment. But once they knew what needed to be said, all three men travelled to the closest city to convey the message.
It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a city to change the world. Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, and influential mortals like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Eva Peron, Marie Antoinette, Chairman Mao; they all gave their impassioned speeches, teachings, and at-times arm-twisting arguments, in cities. Cities are where the spokespeople for civilization come to urge the rest of us to follow a new path.
Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012
Originally published on April 4, 2012
Cities are often associated with mixed emotions. They can sometimes make us feel insecure, disconnected and lonely, even in a crowd; while, in other moments, they provide the setting for the happiest events in our lives.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, urban spaces have a huge impact on how people participate in public life. Regular readers of this blog know that the original concept of the public sphere originates from the agora in ancient Greek city-states. The agora was a physical place where people gathered to deliberate and exchange their opinions – a true marketplace of ideas. The modern public sphere has now shifted more into the virtual realm, through various technologies and social media.
Around 5000 years ago, the first cities emerged in Mesopotamia and the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Agricultural surpluses enabled a few people to start specializing in something other than agriculture. The farmer who now had extra grain could trade for a better spear or a winter fur coat. This specialization and the ability to trade goods and services is the basis of urbanization. And, there was enough food that the starving artist didn’t starve completely, so along with trade, culture emerged.
Cities grew at a modest pace until about 1800 when the Industrial Revolution took off in the UK and cities developed at staggering rates. Manchester, for example experienced a six-fold population increase from 1771 to 1831. London went from about one-fifth of Britain’s population at the start of the 19th Century to about half the country’s population in 1851. This rate of urbanization has not let up for the last two hundred years; in fact it is still accelerating. The growth of cities seen over the last two hundred years will now be repeated, but this time in just forty years.
We all have the currency of a country or two in our wallets; maybe a passport too. We can be brought to tears when we see ‘our’ flag unfurled at the Olympics or a World Cup. Sure there are great sporting rivalries between cities like Milan and Barcelona, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and (in that other football) Dallas vs. Washington. But it’s countries that need flags and currencies, languages and laws, to inspire passion and fidelity. Running a country is about protecting an idea, an ideal, and a dream. Psychologically and physically countries have borders – barriers to entry and exit; people, ideas, money – it all needs to be controlled by a national authority.
Cities are different. Cities are anchored to a specific place. A sheltered port, the mouth of a river, a fertile valley, or a strategic vantage point: cities emerge where geography and opportunity combine. Much has been written on the creative class – that fickle, mobile group of professionals wandering the planet looking for their next engagement. City officials may actively seek them, but far more important are those people willing to stay and fight for their city. With links and roots like children, mortgages, and history, people who feel they belong are the foundation of every city.
The next time you're in a new city, maybe jet-lagged, try to wake-up early and take a walk: The earlier the better. Watch as the city wakes, the merchants restock their shelves and workers take away the waste. Street sweepers and garbage collectors take advantage of the quiet streets; people open offices and stores; the calm before the rush. Perhaps your hotel is near a market – check out how early the bakers and farmers start working. A few newspapers are still delivered before the sun rises.
While walking and watching the city wake, also look beneath your feet. There the pipes deliver water and gas; sewers take away wastewater. And if you’re in Europe most of the electricity is delivered through underground piping as well (strange how cities in the US and Canada, where hurricanes are common, have most power lines above ground, while Europe, with fewer storms but more concern for aesthetics, have most power lines buried).