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.
Now we know that cities across the globe—particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and East Asia—are growing fast at an unprecedented scale. Most growth will be in small- and medium-sized cities. Projections range, but most estimate an increase from about 3.5 billion urbanites today to about 4.3 billion in 2025 (Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata, 2012) to 5.6 billion by 2040 (Shell Scenarios, 2013). We also know that demand for resources and services is going to balloon— McKinsey estimates that there will be about 600 million new middle class consumers in emerging market cities by 2025. These folks—roughly totaling the current combined population of the US, Brazil, and Mexico—are going to want more cars, air conditioners, rib-eye steaks, tuna tartar, trips to the Great Barrier Reef and Glacier National Park, and all the other fine things that wealth brings. Who blames them? I sure don’t.
So what does this have to do with global public goods (GPGs) and the future roles of development assistance—the focus of the Collective Solutions 2025 study? My view is that cities can either save the day when it comes to protecting and optimizing the productivity of GPGs or be the source of their demise. Of course, the wooly mammoth in the room is climate change—city residents are responsible for about 80% of GHG emissions. The bulk of those vulnerable to climate change impacts are city dwellers. Resilience to climate change shocks is often quite low in developing country cities leading to long-term impacts that go beyond the city borders and municipal control. Further, in addition to those seeking the “urban opportunities”—jobs, education, etc.—many cities must also absorb the already arriving rural climate migrants who can no longer eke out a living off the land because of increased climate variability, drought and flooding, and salt water intrusion.
The future consumption patterns of urbanites will also have dramatic effects on the health of GPGs. Demand for natural resources, food, and other goods will impact forests, biodiversity, fisheries and water. Consumption patterns will also determine air, water, and solid waste loads and management practices which in turn can have significant impacts on regional and global public goods.
Should we be optimistic that cities will save the day by generating the economic growth and innovation that can lead to a much more sustainable existence? I was heartened to feel the optimistic vibrations that were generated when my colleagues, Julianne Baker and Sintana Vergara, engaged young professionals, students and young representatives of slum communities in Manila, Bangkok, Tokyo and Washington, DC to get a feel for how they see the future of cities and life in cities. I also very much appreciate the positive outlook of urban gurus like Dan Hoornweg  regarding the role cities can and will play in saving the world. When the World Bank decided to seriously engage in the protection of the global oceans commons, such as tuna, Dan wrote the Seussian ditty below. His message: to focus on where stuff is consumed, not just on where it swims!
Addressing global and regional challenges will require city-level action. From climate change to tuna, it is at the city-level that the necessary policy, institutional, technical and cultural transitions can be achieved that will shift the current, scary trajectories. But I must admit that it is hard for me to be optimistic that this will be achieved. Cities face huge, expensive, politically-charged challenges today. The international community has not, in my opinion, demonstrated the willingness or capability to provide the support that city leaders need to overcome their current challenges and at the same time serve as the source of many of the global solutions. I find it distressing that so little is known today about the infrastructure and services investment needs, and the potential associated costs to make these investments low carbon and climate resilient. Very little has been achieved in financial engineering innovation to mobilize the trillions required to meet existing, let alone future low carbon, climate resilient needs. There are almost no incentives for an urban leader to push a low carbon agenda—while the global community has failed to value carbon. Obviously the city leaders will pay attention to climate impacts—and they will eventually bear the increased costs of climate proofing. I would guess that the wealthier urbanites will come out OK, but I am less sure about the less fortunate.
Without a new form of collective support from state and non-state actors, from traditional and non-traditional sources of assistance, I don’t envision adequately significant shifts towards low carbon city development required to reduce the severity and frequency of climate impacts on developing country cities. McKinsey estimates that the unprecedented urban growth discussed earlier will require the building of floor space equivalent to 87% of today’s building stock; and OECD estimates that more than half of existing buildings are projected to be standing in 2050, indicating that the environmental impacts of buildings constructed today will continue for years to come. It has been well understood for years that building energy efficiency is the low hanging fruit for GHG reductions—but how much of this new stock will use best available technologies to minimize their carbon footprint? Under the current circumstances, most likely these and other city investments will be lowest capital cost—opportunities for transformation towards a more sustainable, livable urban world could well be lost if a different approach to collective action that addresses the long-term needs while taking into account the very real shorter-term political, financial, technical and cultural barriers and opportunities.
‘From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere!’
That one blue fish cost a million plus, 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.
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?’
Presidents, queens and kings. Treaties, conferences and other hopeful things.
Hunters, fishers, angry warring foes, and even NGOs.
From here to there, all of them can save that fish, and can keep it from the dish,
But none of them, yes, it’s true. Mr. Mayor none of them, as well as you.
From there to here, from here to there, boys and girls are everywhere
Please save our fish; it’s a simple wish. One fish, two fish, few fish, blue fish.