Published on Sustainable Cities

The Urban Moment

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City street scene
Urbanization can reconfigure social and cultural relationships.

Cities have been experiencing a moment in the cultural spotlight in the last few years. There is more discussion and even celebration of cities than ever before. Newspapers and magazines are starting websites dedicated to global urban issues, university researchers and technology companies are turning their attention to ‘smart cities’, and there are even popular documentary movies, reality shows and musicals all about city planning. India, still mostly rural, has just elected a new Prime Minister who promises urban redevelopment and ‘new-age cities’, and it is no longer shocking to hear that China's proposed urbanization budget runs in the trillions of dollars.

Why has this urban moment come about now? Several trends, some in the developing world and others in wealthier countries, seem to have converged lately. It is interesting to step back and examine these trends, before thinking about where we go from here.

Here are seven trends that together seem to be elevating the importance of cities in public discourse:

  1. The world is now “50% urban”. The statistic that, as of 2008, more than half the world’s population lived in urban areas ricocheted around the news and the internet, and for a while seemed to feature in the opening sentence of every article or study about urbanization. As it happens, this statistic is more complicated than it first appears -- it is a compilation of national ‘urban’ populations that are measured very differently from one country to another -- but it has nevertheless lodged itself into the popular consciousness, and has made cities a bigger part of how we imagine ourselves.
  2. Cities are now seen as ‘green’. The notion that living in a leafy suburb is a ‘greener’ lifestyle than living in a grey concrete city is being discredited. There is now an increasing awareness of the lower carbon emissions associated with living in cities, due to reduced commuting, heating costs and other factors. Dense cities are no longer seen as the enemy of the environment that they once were.
  3. Urbanization is now seen as good for development. Developing countries used to perceive their cities as blights on the landscape, full of pollution, congestion and slums, with a few elite enclaves. The prevailing attitude was that cities were either beyond redemption, or undeserving of assistance, and that their growth should be contained. Over the last few years, many economists have worked hard to overturn this view, persistently making the case that “the path to prosperity inevitably runs through cities”. The World Bank’s World Development Report of 2009 made the argument that spatial differences in productivity between urban and rural areas need not be a cause for concern, that cities are the engines of growth, and should be encouraged to make the best use of their many advantages. In 2011, the economist Edward Glaeser released the influential book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. The title alone says a lot about the new boosterism of development economists on behalf of cities.
  4. Technology has made complexity manageable. The complexity of cities used to make them seem overwhelmingly chaotic and illegible. Now that anyone with a smartphone can easily find out when the next bus is coming, where the nearest shared bike or car is parked, where they can find a place to eat, where their friends are, or even the history of the area they are passing through, suddenly the city is richly engaging instead of off-putting. At the same time, governments are starting to take advantage of technology like ubiquitous sensors, GPS and satellite imagery to help them manage their cities more easily.
  5. Urban planning has changed. Over the last few decades, the practice of urban planning has tried to shift from being technocratic, top-down and ‘objective’, to more participatory, with room for diversity of opinion. One might say that planning went from modernism to postmodernism. Where this has been successful, it has made the general public feel more engaged in shaping their cities.
  6. The role of cities in the United States has changed. For a number of reasons, the suburban, car-driven American ideal is eroding. This has partly to do with changed circumstances among educated middle-class Americans in their 20s and 30s, particularly since the recession. These young Americans have less job security, often remain students well into adult life, get married less often and have fewer children than the previous generation. At the same time, inner cities in the US have become dramatically safer since the 1990s (comparing images of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s to today illustrates this.) While the reasons for the drop in urban crime are still disputed, this has allowed these better-off young people to move into and regenerate formerly decrepit inner city areas (often displacing the poor). Living space may be cramped for these young urbanites, but the coffee shop is their living room and the public park is their backyard. As an exporter of both culture and technology, the new ‘cool’ of cities in the US is felt elsewhere in the world too.
  7. The move to container shipping has opened up urban waterfronts: Many cities around the world are building large, mechanized container shipping facilities outside cities. As a result, old downtown ports are falling out of use, and being redeveloped as residential, commercial or recreational areas. People are re-engaging with their city's waterfront, and in many cases re-discovering the reason why the city was located there in the first place, i.e. access to water.

If we accept that these trends, among others, have brought cities into the popular consciousness more than before and have generally improved their image around the world, does it mean that the city has in fact “triumphed”? Are cities now something to celebrate rather than worry about? Clearly, there are a number of challenges that remain before that can be said. The following are a few of them, focusing mostly on issues in developing countries and how they are dealt with by international development organizations.

Firstly, we don’t fully understand the lived experience of rural to urban migration in the developing world. We talk of ‘urban’ and ‘rural’ as distinct categories, but we know that the majority of 'urban’ people live in smaller cities closer to their rural origins, that migration is often seasonal, and that in many cases people return to their rural land after spending a few years in cities. The fluidity of these categories gets lost in the way we discuss them. A related issue is that the political economy of urban and peri-urban land is largely opaque, and powerful interests ensure that they remain opaque. Urban planners and development experts are often obliged to skirt around these sensitive issues, and their effectiveness is limited as a result.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we do not fully understand the social implications of the rapid urbanization of a large proportion of the world's people. How does society change when it urbanizes? This is perhaps the most important social question of our time. Urbanization is a shift that takes place not just through the physical relocation of people and the construction of infrastructure, but also through a change in people's relationships to one another, and their sense of who they are and how they fit into society. When people move to cities, social networks are reconfigured, old identities are replaced by new ones, and groups of people with very different backgrounds and values are brought face to face. What impact will this have?

Human beings are meaning-generating creatures; we construct narratives about ourselves from random facts of our lives, the way a bird builds a nest from scraps and twigs. Where we come from is an inevitable part of that story about ourselves that we hold dear. A world in which most people come from cities is bound to be different from one in which most people come from isolated rural settlements. This will express itself in all kinds of unexpected ways over the next several generations, through politics and culture. We cannot assume that these expressions will be positive. Urban sustainability is usually thought of in terms of economic and environmental efficiency; there is not yet enough understanding of what kinds of cities are socially sustainable, able to provide a meaningful sense of belonging, instead of alienation, unrest and violence. What feels like a moment of unusual global focus on cities may really be the world preparing to come to terms with the changes ahead.

​Photo credit: Chandan Deuskar

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