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Cities: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Giftwrapped building in AmsterdamJesus 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.

Cities Now On the Third Wave

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Breaking waveAround 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.

For Cities to Walk the Walk, National Governments Need to Pave the Way

Maggie Comstock's picture

Qatar National Convention Center

While consensus in the COP18 negotiations has yet to be reached, most can agree that national governments cannot be solely responsible for addressing climate change. Local governments, the private sector and individuals must each play a part in supporting and growing the green economy. However, one way national governments can easily step up to the plate is to remove policy barriers for subnational actions on climate change.

Why a City’s Not a Country

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Flags in front of UN headquarters, New York City

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.

Global youth assert their visions for the city of 2025

Sintana Vergara's picture

“What attributes do you want your city to possess in 2025?”

As the share of the global population living in cities soars beyond 50%, answering this question is central for sustainable development. It is also central to Warren Evans, Senior Advisor at the World Bank, who is leading a study on what role the World Bank should play in sustainable development in 2025. But he agreed with us that it’s a question too often posed to senior decision makers. To instead find out what youth want their cities to look like – after all, they will be the ones in charge by then – Julianne and I ran a series of participatory workshops with professional and low-income youth, aged 15 to 30, to solicit their responses. We held at least three workshops in each of the four cities we visited – Tokyo, Manila, Bangkok, and Washington DC – with 10-20 participants per session. The workshops were comprised of three activities:

  1. Describe your city: in a word. Participants shared a word or a phrase defining where they were from.

Cities and Their Underwear

Dan Hoornweg's picture

BoxersThe 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).

Cities: The Drivers of Sustainable Human Development and Prosperity

Maggie Comstock's picture

People walking through city street

While green buildings, by their most obvious definition, address environmental impacts, they also have wide implications for human health, safety and productivity. Well-ventilated green schools can reduce instances of asthma in students. Green offices with day lit spaces boost employee productivity and attendance. Patients heal faster in green hospitals with views to nature.

The Utilities of Cities

Dan Hoornweg's picture

Operations Center, Rio de JaneiroThe care and feeding of cities is likely the world’s largest business; it’s certainly one of the fastest growing. With an additional 2.5 billion people headed to cities in the next 30 years, providing these ‘customers’ with energy, water, transportation and waste management is critical for local government, as well as a huge opportunity for the private sector. Utilities are big business.

The next five to ten years will see enormous change in the utility sector. How services are combined – does it make sense to have the same utility supply communications infrastructure along with electricity, gas and lights and water supply? How much of a ‘foreign’ company will be allowed to provide local services? What is the best mix of public private partnerships? How will improved efficiencies be measured and rewarded contractually? How can ICT be used more effectively in improved service delivery in the more basic services like water, waste and district heating? How do utilities facilitate services to the urban poor?

Hazards, vulnerabilities, and exposures… Oh my

Debra Lam's picture

Hurricane Sandy satellite image over CaribbeanAs the East Coast USA deals with Hurricane Sandy, aka “Frankenstorm”, and Hawaii breathes a sigh of relief at a downgraded tsunami, we are again reminded of the immediate and long-term socio-economic destruction of natural disasters. Hurricane Sandy has resulted in school and public transportation closures, flight cancellations, area evacuations, and even modified Presidential campaign schedules. New York Mayor Bloomberg urged residents to cooperate, “if you don't evacuate, you are not only endangering your life, you are also endangering the lives of the first responders who are going in to rescue you. This is a serious and dangerous storm.”1

Ground zero for natural disasters lies not in the US, however, but in the Asia Pacific Region. Last week, UN ESCAP/UNISDR released the Asia-Pacific Disaster Report 2012, ‘Reducing Vulnerability and Exposure to Disasters’. In the year 2011 alone, Asia Pacific represented:

  • 80% (US$ 294/366.1 billion) of the annual global disaster losses 
  • Half of the most costly natural disaster events

Preparing Cities for Climate Change – Initial Lessons from Sandy

Ming Zhang's picture

NYC subway station damaged by seawater flooding during Hurricane SandyNew York City has been a global leader in proactively planning and preparing for climate change under Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s civic leaders. PlanNYC sets out clear goals and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30% and to increase the resilience of our communities, natural systems, and infrastructure to climate risks. It already started the process of adapting to climate change, including elevating infrastructure such as wastewater treatment plant, and expanding “green infrastructure” like marshes along the coast to buffer and limit flooding impacts.

But the events triggered by the unprecedented hurricane Sandy haven shown that what has been done is still not sufficient. What can we learn from the disaster? There will be a lot of valuable lessons coming out in the months ahead, as emergency responses are still ongoing and reconstruction are yet to start. Here are three early lessons:

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