A tale of two cities?

world-cities-dayJulia Stockdale-Otárola, OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate

At times we describe cities with the most hopeful and  endearing terms. Think of “The City of Light”, “The City of Lilies”, “Pearl of the Danube”, “The Holy City”, and so on and so forth. There are other times when only the unique stench, pollution and squalor found in city streets seem to warrant attention. Even in the pages of Plato’s The Republic this dichotomy of wealth and despair is found: “Any city, however small, is in fact divided into two, one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another”. And yet the attraction to the hustle and bustle of urban centres has not wavered. The allure of cities seems to be as enticing as ever.

Of course, the speed and intensity of urbanisation has varied both over time and across nations. Throughout history many cities have boasted the title of the “most populous city” – though it must be noted that the requirement for such a title has changed drastically. For example, Jericho was a bustling metropolis in 7 000 AD with only one thousand people. By 2014, Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Mexico City and São Paolo all reached “megacity” status with more than 20 million people.

Though rapid, these population spikes didn’t happen overnight. Many cities started to grow and mature into the metropolises many of us call home in the 18th century. From 1750 to 1950 the urban population increased by about 400 million, primarily in Europe and with London at its core. This 200-year period is known as the first wave of urbanisation.

It would seem that the second wave of urbanisation is already proving to be much greater than the first in both magnitude and speed. Growth was particularly concentrated in Latin America and making it one of the most urbanised regions in the world with an urbanisation rate of about 80%.

Looking forward, the urban population is expected to increase to about 6 billion by 2050 – quite the jump from less than 1 billion in 1950! By 2100, the number of urbanites is projected to swell to an impressive 9 billion people, or 85% of the world’s population. This time, the majority of this growth will be concentrated in Asian and African cities.

It’s not only the number of cities that is growing but also the size of cities. Some 41 megacities will likely be scattered across the globe by 2030 (compared to only two in the 1950s) – with Asia boasting 7 of the top 10. Meanwhile, with some exceptions, urban growth will likely slow down or go into decline (if it hasn’t already) in much of Europe and North America.

This major demographic shift comes with its consequences. Policy makers across the globe are tackling myriad challenges for the 50% of the world’s population already living in cities. Population growth, increased pollution, and ageing or inadequate infrastructure all threaten the environment, the efficiency and productivity of cities, and the health and well-being of their citizens. Poor planning can lead to the exacerbation of place-based inequalities. Poverty in the city is also distinct from that in the countryside. Climate change only increases the risk of natural disasters causing potentially devastating damage to urban centres and threatening public safety.

It can be difficult to cope with change. Even more so when that change moves quickly – but cities are trying to adapt. Some cities are being retrofitted to improve the lives of their citizens in a sustainable way by reinventing themselves as eco-cities or ‘green cities’ while fighting inequalities. The city of Malmö, Sweden, claims to be home to Europe’s first carbon neutral neighbourhood. This was achieved following significant planning changes in infrastructure, waste management and energy supply to a former industrial wasteland. To improve the health of its citizens, Mexico City launched the El Médico en tu casa programme bringing medical professionals directly to the homes of those in need. These are examples of sustainable and inclusive policy decisions made at the municipal level.

Where do you fit in?

Everyone can play key role in either pressuring for the adoption and implementation of urban sustainability policies at the local and national level. For example, more cities are offering alternative transportation services including bike and car sharing schemes. These alternatives help curb individual carbon footprints (and even kick-start a healthy daily habit!). New technologies are also opening innovative ways for people to make micro-interventions. The application FixMyStreet helps people communicate local issues in real time, e.g. broken street lamps and pot holes. Large and small businesses can also play a role. For example, the OECD recently launched a campaign involving staff in offsetting commuting-related carbon emissions by offering to plant one tree for every staff member in the Paris area. Staff could then go a step beyond by choosing to plant a few more trees at a subsidised cost.

Useful links

Get involved: https://www.fixmystreet.com

How does your city fare? Check out the Sustainable Cities Index or the EU’s Green Capital Awards

African Economic Outlook 2016: Sustainable Cities and Structural Transformation AfDB/OECD/UNDP

Governing the City OECD

The Metropolitan Century: Understanding Urbanisation and its Consequences OECD

Guest author

Leave a Reply