Urbanization is the most powerful force shaping the planet today. This can be good news as urbanization is the best bet we have to meet our global poverty reduction targets. Cities generate our wealth, our culture, and our innovation. This is also bad news since cities generate the lion’s share of the world’s GHG emissions, and cities are responsible for most of the planet’s current decline in biodiversity. Cities also generate solid waste; lots of it and the amount is growing fast.
‘Peak waste’ – that point in time when all the waste from all the cities finally plateaus around the world, and then slowly starts to decline, is not on track to happen this century. Estimates are that it will peak at three-times today’s current waste generation rate. Peak waste is an excellent proxy for humanity’s cumulative global environmental impact; therefore we are on track to triple today’s overall global environmental impact. Our ‘assault on the planet’ will start to subside on the other side of peak waste. Therefore we must move peak waste forward and reduce its intensity when it finally does arrive.
How do we go about bringing shared prosperity and ensure that development benefits the broad swath of population- and especially the bottom 40 percent of people living under 4 dollars a day? It is by no means an exaggeration to say that the path to shared prosperity inevitably runs through cities.
Today we are witnessing an unprecedented demographic and economic transformation. Some 2.7 billion more people will move into cities by 2030, mostly in developing countries and particularly in Africa and Asia. It is estimated that some 4 million people move to cities every week. They come to cities filled with hope and looking for opportunities.
Cities hold the key to jobs, housing, education, health. They also provide basic services such as water and sanitation and decent transport which are often missing in rural areas. So can urbanization be the platform to deliver these diverse goals? What makes some cities more competitive? Why do entrepreneurs and workers get attracted to some cities? Why do industries and services locate in one city and not another? Will mega-cities or intermediate-sized cities deliver these goals? What can policy makers do to improve the flow of goods, people, and ideas across cities? And what can be done to reduce fragmentation, segmentation, and social divisions within cities across formal and informal sectors, the rich and the poor, how do we ensure that cities are gender inclusive ? How does one tackle problems of air pollution, crime and violence, and the slums that one third of the world’s urban resident’s call home. Cities have not performed as well as can be expected in their transformative role as more livable, inclusive and people-centered places, and they face massive challenges from natural hazards and the impacts of climate change.
Thoughts on urban growth from Kiel to Nairobi
I’m writing at the end of a long, dusty mission, after numerous plane, train and car journeys. In fact, 1/7th of my time has been spent on being transported from one city to the next; this gave me plenty of time to marvel at the diversity in city structures.
The first stop was Kiel, Germany, where I spent a few hurried days with academics, government officials, private companies and journalists, discussing solutions for pressing problems in trade and clusters and their impact on poverty and inequality. A city of around 280,000 residents, Kiel is small, about as dense as Dublin, and well-linked with the rest of Germany and Europe. It is one of multiple core-municipalities that form a system of cities around Hamburg along with Lübeck, Bremen etc. The train from the airport was relatively painless, and travel within Kiel (to shop for fresh bread and herring) consisted mostly of short walks.
From a demographic point of view, more than 9 billion people are expected to live on planet earth in 2050, two-thirds of them in cities. Actually, the entire anticipated population increase is to take place in urban areas, with over 90 percent in Africa, Asia, and Latin American and the Caribbean ; so, global urbanization has long since shifted to developing countries and emerging economies. Approximately 2.7 billion people live in urban agglomerations in developing and emerging economies today; in 2030, that number will rise to 3.9 billion – and reach 5.1 billion in 2050. Around 95 percent of this urban momentum is going to take place in metropolitan regions. Established mega regions like Sao Paulo or Mumbai, as well as urban agglomerations composed of rapidly growing small and medium-sized cities will become the key living and economic spaces of the urban millennium.
The future will be won or lost in the world’s cities. With half of humanity now living in cities – and with the breakneck pace of urbanization likely to concentrate two-thirds of the world’s population into metropolitan regions by 2050 – getting urbanization right is the over-arching challenge of this globalizing age.
Urban policy is now at the top of the news due to the bankruptcy filing of forlorn Detroit, which has long been a symbol of urban decay. Yet the urbanization drama goes far beyond the de-industrializing North: The destiny of cities worldwide will determine the success or failure of virtually every development priority – and it will be especially vital for job creation, innovation and productivity growth, environmental sustainability and social inclusion.
“Rapid urbanization is the defining trend of the 21st Century,” said Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President of the World Bank Institute, as he outlined the daunting statistics to a New York City Global Partners conference on “Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship: City Strategies” at Columbia University. “Nearly two billion new urban residents are expected to stream into the world’s cities by 2030 – most of them, in developing countries.”
Managing the growth of emerging megacities will be daunting: The urban populations of Africa and South Asia are poised to double within the next 20 years. An additional 310 million working-age people – about 35 percent of the coming expansion of the global work force – will soon arrive in just 600 of the world’s largest cities. With a worldwide network of densely developed cities destined to become the driver of prosperity, the prime centers of opportunity will be those cities that can attract and energize all forms of productive capital – of the financial, technological and intellectual varieties.
Cities accelerate economic transformation because of their intense population density, which encourages social and economic interactions with greater “social friction” than non-urban settings, as Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser emphasizes in his influential work, “Triumph Of The City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier.” Spontaneous and serendipitous exchanges of ideas turn cities into vibrant hubs of innovation, helping generate 70 percent of global GDP and making cities the world’s focal points of innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity and culture.
In a relentlessly competitive world – which is both “flattened” with a level playing field (as journalist Tom Friedman contends) and “spiky” with intense concentrations of wealth and talent (as urbanologist Richard Florida argues) – competitiveness will depend on both local creativity and global connectivity.
If they can assert what Edwin Heathcote of the Financial Times calls “urban ingenuity,” cities that clearly define their distinctive identity will thrive by embracing their economic vocation and enhancing their strengths in global value chains. Those urban nodes of creativity that are efficiently networked through technology, transportation and trade connections will be able to take maximum advantage of opportunities that require a global sensibility and a global frame of mind.
The recently launched report by the High Level Panel on the post-2015 Development Agenda puts forward that the post-2015 agenda needs to be driven by five big, transformative shifts. The first one it highlights is that the new agenda should leave no one behind. It states that:
“We should ensure that no person – regardless of ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, race or other status – is denied universal human rights and basic economic opportunities. We should design goals that focus on reaching excluded groups.”
Clearly, the world will have to pay particular attention to slum-dwellers, who are left behind in many areas of development and in the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Within the next 30 years, urban populations in developing countries will double and UN-Habitat estimates that around 3 billion people will need housing and basic infrastructure. Already, 70% of existing housing in developing countries is built informally without appropriate structural standards. Thus, the challenge lies in reconciling informal settlements with existing and future planned environments.
In light of these challenges, the South Asia urban team at the World Bank, as part of its urbanization webinar series, organized a discussion on “Upgrading Housing in Informal Settlements.” This webinar highlighted the challenges of upgrading housing in informal settlements, and shared lessons from around the globe where targeted policy interventions and grassroots movements have mobilized resources to create success stories. Guest speakers and experts around the world joined the discussion on informal settlements.
On the second day of the three day regional workshop on affordable land and housing in Thimphu, Bhutan, country representatives continued to share policies and projects that their countries have devised and implemented and with that, the ideas that have or have not worked. One common theme was the interest in the development of secondary cities either around the periphery of rapidly urbanizing growth centers or as growth nodes strategically located along infrastructure such as regional transportation networks to create a ‘system of cities’. These growth centers often present a wealth of opportunities for the poor who flock to the cities from villages with the aspirations of a better life. However, this influx often strains the city’s services and infrastructure at an unsustainable rate.
There is little empirical regularity that is as universal as the following: no matter what the path of economic development a country has followed, urbanization has been an inevitable consequence across the world. Already half the world’s population is urban. Currently, Asia and Africa are the least urbanized regions, but they are expected to reach their respective tipping points–that is when their urban populations will exceed the rural population–in 2023 and 2030. While the urban transition occurs with diverse growth patterns at different times, the real challenge for governments is to take actions that allow residents to make the most of living in cities.
The relationship between urbanization and economic development has long been a popular issue of debate. Should a developing country encourage urbanization? While this is a real dilemma in Bangladesh, because of a highly unfavorable land-population balance, the only alternative Bangladesh has to urbanization is urbanization. The question is not whether Bangladesh should urbanize; the question is how Bangladesh will handle the challenges of urbanization.