Big Data, Complexity Theory and Urban Development

NAECRicardo Herranz, Managing Director, Nommon Solutions and Technologies, Madrid

We are living in the era of cities: more than 50% of the world population is already living in urban areas, and most forecasts indicate that, by the end of this century, the world’s population will be almost entirely urban. In this context, there is an emerging view that the global challenges of poverty eradication, environmental sustainability, climate change, and sustainable and secure energy are all intimately linked to cities, which are simultaneously places where these global problems emerge and solutions can be found. In the short term, cities are facing the major challenge of overcoming the financial and economic crisis and emerging stronger from it. In the long term, they need to deal with structural challenges related to globalisation, climate change, pressure on resources, demographic change, migration, and social segregation and polarisation. Many of these challenges are shared by cities from developed and developing countries, while others depend on geographical, institutional, socioeconomic and cultural differences.

When addressing these problems, policy makers and society at large face a number of fundamental problems. The many components of the urban system are strongly interwoven, giving rise to complex dynamics and making it difficult to anticipate the impact and unintended consequences of public action. Cities are not closed systems, but they are part of systems of cities. Urban development policies are subject to highly distributed, multi-level decision processes and have a profound impact on a wide variety of stakeholders, often with conflicting or contradictory objectives.

In the past few years we have seen the emergence of concepts such as the smart city, urban informatics, urban analytics and citizen science, which are seen to hold great promise for improving the functioning of cities. However, arguably most of this potential still remains to be realised. The concept of the smart city has been coined as a fusion of ideas about how information and communication technologies can help address critical issues relating to cities. Essential to this concept is the notion of an integrated approach to the synergies and trade-offs between different policy domains that are closely interrelated, but have traditionally been addressed separately, such as land use, transport and energy. This integrated approach would be facilitated by the ability to analyse the increasingly large data streams generated by the ubiquitous sensorisation of the built environment and the pervasive use of personal mobile devices. In parallel, smart devices and social media are also producing new forms of public participation in urban planning. The opportunities are vast, but so are the challenges.

Much hope has been placed in the explosion of big data for establishing the foundations of a new science of cities. During the last 20 years, the dominant trend in urban modelling has changed from aggregate, equilibrium models to bottom-up dynamic models (activity-based and agent-based models) that seek to represent cities in more disaggregated and heterogeneous terms. This increasing model sophistication comes with the need for abundant, fine-grained data for model calibration and validation, hindering the operational use of state-of-the-art modelling approaches. The emergence of new sources of big data is enabling the collection of spatio-temporal data about urban activity with an unprecedented level of detail, providing us with information that was not available from surveys or census data. This has already yielded important practical advances in fields like transportation planning, but it is more questionable, at least for the moment, that big data has produced substantial advances in our understanding of cities. In principle, the potential is there: while research on cities has historically relied on cross-sectional demographic and economic datasets, often consisting of relatively small samples, we have now large-scale, detailed longitudinal data that can allow us to test new hypotheses about urban structure and dynamics. On the other hand, there is a risk that big data leads to a shift in focus towards short-term, predictive, non-explanatory models, abandoning theory. Connecting the smart city and big data movements with the knowledge developed in the last decades in fields like regional science, urban economics and transportation modelling appears as an essential condition to overcome this problem and take advantage of the opportunities offered by big data for the formulation of better theories and policy approaches.

Both empirical work and theoretical advances are needed to cope with the new challenges raised by energy scarcity and climate change, emerging technologies like self-driving cars, and the changes in social relationships, the new activities and the new forms of sharing economy enabled by social media and electronic communications, among other factors that are leading to profound changes in urban structure and dynamics. Equally challenging is to integrate data and models into governance processes: policy assessment and participatory planning are still largely based on qualitative considerations, and there is a sense that state-of-the-art urban models are immature with respect to institutional integration and operational use. New forms of data sharing and visualisation, digital participation and citizens’ engagement are promising tools to tackle this question, but here again, we still have to figure out how to share data and specialised knowledge in a form that fluidly intersects participatory decision making process and bridges the gap between implicit and explicit knowledge. Recent advances in areas such as network theory, agent-based computational modelling and group decision theory, and more generally the intrinsically holistic and eclectic approach advocated by complexity science, appear as a suitable framework for the development of a new science of cities which can in turn lead to new advances in the way cities are planned and managed, allowing us to address the enormous challenges related to urban development in the 21st century.

Useful links

OECD work on urban development

The OECD is organising a Workshop on Complexity and Policy, 29-30 September, OECD HQ, Paris, along with the European Commission and INET. Watch the webcast: 29/09 morning29/09 afternoon30/09 morning

Playing the Long Game: Urban Green Growth, Spatial Planning and Land Use

GGSD 2016 Save the Date A4_Darker-150x213Ryan Parmentier, OECD Environment Directorate

Imagine you have an important decision to make. Do you carefully consider the long-term implications of each possible option or do you act impulsively? Would you approach the decision-making process differently if the consequences stretched out to 30 or even 50 years?

Urban, spatial and land use planning professionals repeatedly find themselves in this predicament. There are significant and long-lasting economic as well as environmental impacts of the decisions that are made with respect to transportation, energy, waste, water, buildings and infrastructure. Yet, many land-use interventions do not properly account for environmental consequences. The decisions made regarding where and when roads are built, and the density, type and location of buildings all have long-term impacts on air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity and water use. Even seemingly indirect or unrelated decisions on the taxation of property can have a significant impact on environmental outcomes. As a result, the innumerable decisions related to land use – both big and small – need to be made so that growth is green.

This is an easy thing to say, but an increasingly challenging thing to do in a world that is changing incredibly fast. As a recent article on urban planning in the Economist pointed out, the city of London took 2000 years to grow from 30,000 to almost 10 million people. Cities in China are achieving the same growth rate in just 30 years! The pressures to deliver the services required by an expanding global population are challenging and the long-term environmental consequences are becoming impossible to ignore.

The 2016 OECD Green Growth and Sustainable Development Forum will tackle these very issues under the theme of “Urban green growth, spatial planning and land use”. An engaging agenda is being developed that will explore, through examples, whether existing land-use policies support green growth. The Forum will discuss the challenge of urban sprawl and the associated social and environmental consequences. It will examine the green growth challenges at the city level, giving consideration to innovative approaches and best practices. Issues related to resilient infrastructure, tracking and measuring progress on green growth as well as the role that finance and tax policies can have on land use outcomes will also be discussed. One session will focus on the OECD’s Inclusive Growth in Cities Campaign and discuss how to build cities that are both inclusive and environmentally sustainable.

The Forum will consider green growth at all relevant levels, i.e. from both the national and sub-national perspectives and part of the broader international agenda. The latter includes the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on climate change, Habitat III (the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development – Quito, Ecuador 17-20 October, 2016) and the 2017 Annual Green Growth Knowledge Platform Conference on resilient infrastructure that will be hosted by the World Bank.

The wide-ranging issues related to land use and the broader international agenda clearly demonstrate that to be successful, co-operation is crucial. This includes co-operation across local, regional and national levels to effectively green urban and spatial planning as well as land-use policies and decisions. Enhanced international co-operation is becoming urgent. This is particularly relevant in a world that is facing increasing uncertainty. There will be growing pressure and a natural instinct to continue to make decisions that benefit the short term when the future is uncertain. But now more than ever, we need to work together to make sure that does not happen.

Useful links

The 2016 OECD Green Growth and Sustainable Development (GGSD) Forum: Urban Green Growth, Spatial Planning and Land Use Paris, 9-10 November

Cities and Green Growth: A Conceptual Framework”, OECD Regional Development Working Papers 2011/08

Africa’s urbanisation and structural transformation

AEO 2016We don’t know the name, or the place and exact date of birth, of the baby who changed world history. My guess is that she was born somewhere in Africa in 2007. Not that she cared as she lay there all wrinkled and raging at the disagreeable turn her life had just taken, but it was thanks to her that for the first time ever, the world had more urban dwellers than country folk.

Africa itself won’t pass that landmark until sometime in the 2030s, but when you look at the numbers rather than the percentages, you can see why this year’s African Economic Outlook from the OECD Development Centre, African Development Bank, and UNDP is focusing on “Sustainable Cities and Structural Transformation”. In 1990, Africa was the world’s region with the smallest number of urban dwellers: 197 million. Now it has more than twice that at 472 million, and the urban population is expected to almost double again between 2015 and 2035. By 2020, Africa is forecast to have the second highest number of urban dwellers in the world (560 million) after Asia (2348 million).

Most of us, including many of the people who live in them, probably have a negative impression of African cities. Lagos-based Bayo Olupohunda warns that “intractable traffic gridlock, breakdown of law and order due to social exclusion, amenities crises are the signs of population apocalypse…”. Likewise, The Guardian is running a series on cities just now, and the headlines of its articles about African metropolises like Kinshasa and Nairobi talk about chaos and pollution.

It’s worth noting, though, that African urbanisation isn’t mainly due to the megacities we always hear about. In fact, between 2000 and 2010, urban agglomerations with fewer than 300,000 inhabitants accounted for 58% of Africa’s urban growth, compared with 29% for those with populations over a million. Nor is it due to rural-urban migration: migration accounts for less than a third of urban population growth in 22 African countries. It accounts for over 50% in only 7 countries (Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Lesotho, Namibia, Rwanda, Seychelles and South Africa, whereas it contributed to half of Asia’s urban population growth. The Outlook groups African countries into five types according to their stages in three processes: urbanisation, fertility transition, and structural transformation.

Whatever their individual characteristics, the Outlook, exposes a daunting series of problems facing Africa’s urban areas. In many African countries, a large portion of the urban labour force remains trapped in low-productivity informal services activities, and access to public goods is unequal. Moreover, despite Africa’s slow industrialisation, the costs of environmental degradation are large and increasing, adding to the economic and social challenges of urbanisation.

The speed of the economic transformation could be a problem as well. Some economists are concerned that African countries – and developing countries generally – are moving into the service sector too early in their development trajectory and that this “premature deindustrialisation” may damage future growth prospects by depriving economies of the benefits of industrialisation for sustained growth and economic convergence. For example, if people are moving out of farming into hotel and restaurant work or street trading, especially informal jobs, the sectors they move into are likely to see productivity growth slowed by this influx of cheap labour.

And yet, despite all the readily available negative evidence, the Outlook argues that urbanisation could boost structural transformation – moving economic resources from low to higher productivity activities, essentially from traditional agriculture to manufacturing or services. In part, this view is based on economic history. Cities everywhere have traditionally provided “a large and diversified pool of labour, a more dynamic local market, more cost-effective access to suppliers and specialised services, lower transaction costs, more diversified contact networks and greater knowledge-sharing opportunities, and an environment that encourages innovation”.

They are also ideal for cashing in on one of the trends defining the new economy. Often this is referred to as the “sharing economy”, but as Diane Coyle argued at an OECD seminar earlier this year, “matching” is a better term to describe what platforms like Uber or AirBnB do – they match the demand for something to those supplying it. Cities help firms match their requirements for labour, materials, and premises better than towns or rural area. Larger markets bring more choices and opportunities. Cities also afford firms access to a wider range of shared services and infrastructure because of the scale of activity. Firms gain from the superior flow of information in cities, which promotes more learning and innovation, and results in higher value-added products and processes.

Bayo Olupohunda recognises this, arguing that if well-managed, Lagos could be efficient, “enabling economies of scale and network effects. Furthermore, the proximity and diversity of people as seen in Lagos can spark innovation and create employment, as exchanging of ideas breeds new ideas”. He also recognises that these benefits don’t come automatically though, and that “the availability and quality of infrastructure are at the core of many of the challenges faced by a rapidly urbanized Lagos.”

The Outlook makes the same diagnosis for African cities in general, citing three policy-related issues: public and private actors have not sufficiently upgraded the urban infrastructure; steadily high fertility rates in urban areas have contributed to overcrowding through fast urban growth; and dysfunctional real estate markets have led to the explosion of informal housing. To tackle the problems, governments and the private sector will have to invest twice as much by 2050 as they have since the years of independence, but policies to restrain urbanisation have tended to be more popular than policies to use urbanisation to boost structural transformation.

This may be changing. The Draft Africa Common Position on Habitat III, the Third UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development taking place in October, states that Sustainable Development Goal 11 to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, “needs to be considered together with goals 8, 9 and 10 on matters relating to promoting economic growth as well as full and productive employment; building infrastructure, industrialization and innovation, as well as reducing inequality within and between countries”.

Useful links

A 21st Century Vision for Urbanisation Dr Joan Clos, Executive Director, UN-Habitat on OECD Development Matters blog

OECD Development Centre work on Africa and the Middle East

Moving beyond agriculture: It’s food that matters!

marketThomas Allen, Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC)/OECD Secretariat

We have to face facts: agriculture’s role in the food economy of West Africa isn’t as important as it used to be. Today, 40% of the agro-food sector’s value added is no longer produced by agriculture. Agriculture remains a pillar of economies in the region, but the food chain’s downstream segments are evolving in line with changes in society. West African politicians need to take note of these evolutions and act accordingly if the region is to take full advantage of its domestic market growth potential. Food and nutrition issues are no longer solely agricultural in nature, and agricultural policy no longer addresses them all.

In West Africa today, as many people depend on non-agricultural activities for their livelihoods as are engaged in agriculture. This is the major transformation of the past 60 years. It is inextricably linked to the explosion in towns and cities that one can see just by looking at a map of the region. Never in the history of humanity have as many people moved and have as many cities emerged in such a short time. Today there are 2000 towns with over 10,000 inhabitants; in 1950, there were 150.

There are now 150 million urban dwellers, 30 times more than in 1950. Between 2000 and 2015 alone, the West African urban population grew by over 60 million people. That’s like adding a country the size of France to the region. And this growth is no longer only fueled by rural migration: most of these people were born in cities.

As a result of urbanization and income growth, the West African diet is changing. This is in turn impacting food security and nutrition. Diets are diversifying, especially in urban areas. More fruits and vegetables and more processed foods are being consumed, with the latter now representing at least 39% of urban households’ food budgets. Even more surprisingly, the poorest rural households devote 35% of their budget to processed foods, showing that these are not limited to the urban middle class.

These figures remind us of a simple truth: Almost all foods are processed in some way. We do not eat wheat or maize, but rather bread and a multitude of other products from their flour. Millet is crushed, cassava is soaked, shredded, crushed, dried, roasted, fermented, etc. Millions of women have participated in these sometimes laborious tasks, and today some devote all their energy to them. This is, for example, the case of Georgette* in Cotonou, who specializes in the preparation and sale of mawé or “dried aklui“, granules of maize flour that can easily and quickly be used to make a kind of porridge. The form that this market development takes can come as a surprise to those who automatically associate processed foods with supermarkets or frozen foods; do not expect the streets of Bamako or Niamey to be covered overnight by the franchises of a famous fast food chain!

More and more men and women work in the logistics and marketing of food products. Quantities exchanged on the agricultural and food markets have exploded: households now turn to markets as their main source of food supply, providing at least two-thirds of their food consumption. Total transactions amounted to $120 billion in 2010. It is by far the largest West African market. If you add the fact that urban populations consume 50% more than rural populations and that there is no sign of urbanisation slowing over the next two decades, it is easy to understand investor interest. Helping to co-ordinate these various actors is more important than ever before.

However, there is an additional difficulty: the largest share of this economy is informal. And it would be unrealistic to seek to formalise it today. We need to be more creative than simply suggesting investment frameworks. Experiences elsewhere can inspire ways forward, such as the Qali Warma programme in Peru that revised public procurement procedures so that local food producers could supply school meals for children between the ages of 3 and 6. This initiative is a good illustration of the challenges to public action today, namely how to simultaneously release people’s energies and devise institutional mechanisms that ensure the coherence of an increasingly complex agro-food system.

*Names have been changed

Useful links

ECOWAP+10: ten years of the ECOWAS Common Agricultural Policy

Changes in the agro-food economy and their implications OECD/SWAC and ECOWAP+10

Settlement, Market and Food Security, West African Studies, OECD/SWAC

2015 Sahel and West Africa Club Forum

Please visit the SWAC blog for more views on regional issues in West Africa.

Baltimore: Smacked Down by the Invisible Hand

Click for video
Click for video

Today’s post is by Bill Below of the OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

The recent riots in Baltimore following the death of Freddy Gray bring a tragic focus, once again, on inequality. Maryland’s largest city, Baltimore is a perfect laboratory to study it, thanks in part to the superb comparative statistics the city keeps.

The contrasts in Maryland are surprising. State-wide, Maryland boasts a median household income of $73,538, (the US median household income is about $52,000). Although that’s down from $87,080 pre financial crisis, it’s still high enough to make Maryland the income leader amongst all fifty states.

And then there’s Baltimore…

The city’s median income is $41,385, but as always the devil is in the details. To find the real picture of inequality you have to de-aggregate. The median income for whites in Baltimore is $60,550, but drops precipitously to $33,610 for blacks. Unemployment for young white men in Baltimore is 10%, but for young black males it jumps to 37%. As a point of reference, the unemployment rate at the worst point of the Great Depression was 25%.

Nearly 24% of the city’s population lives below the poverty line drawn at $20,090 per year for a family of three. 35% of children live below the poverty line and 63% live in low-income households (calculated as less than twice poverty level income).

Life expectancy follows trends that have been well established in OECD countries and elsewhere, namely significant disparities linked to income. Of Baltimore’s 55 neighbourhoods, average life expectancy in the bottom quintile is 68 years compared to 81 years in the upper quintile. Forget the Invisible Hand, this is an invisible Berlin Wall dividing contiguous neighbourhoods like Downtown/Seton Hill (low life expectancy) and Inner Harbor/Federal Hill (high life expectancy). That’s a 13-year difference for people living a five-minute walk from each other (albeit, across the invisible wall, life-styles can be radically different). If you compare Downtown/Seton Hill to outlying neighbourhoods such as Roland Park/Poplar Hill, the life expectancy difference increases to 19-20 years.

In Downtown/Seton Hill and similar neighbourhoods, people die young. The homicide rate is up to 10–20 times higher than of the richest neighbourhoods. Residents are 20 times more likely to die from HIV/Aids. There is also a higher risk of death from heart attack and diabetes (3 and 8 times higher respectively than Baltimore’s highest income neighbourhoods). The Washington Post provided some context. If Downtown/Seton Hill were a country, it would rank between Madagascar and Yemen in terms of life expectancy.

One of the poignant voices heard during the riots summed it up. A woman interviewed on MSNBC said: “The time for taking stock and talking about inequality is over. It’s time to act!” But for some reason, when it comes to inequality, hands—invisible and otherwise—always seem to be tied. Republicans use Baltimore as proof that Democrats have failed to fix the problem of poverty. Tom Hogan, Maryland’s present Governor, was recently elected on a promise to lower taxes and cut government spending. His predecessor Martin O’Malley, former Baltimore Mayor and possible Democratic presidential contender, defends his two terms as mayor stating that, since the 1970s, the lack of a federal agenda has left cities to “fend for themselves.” To his credit, that’s the exact moment when laissez-faire fundamentalists went from standing in the wings to taking centre stage on both sides of the Atlantic.

Administrations come and go and ideological debates rage on. Meanwhile, Baltimore, or portions of it, continue to garner more than their share of inequality and despair.

Elections, like policy choices, have consequences, at local and national levels. The regulatory failures and policies that caused the financial crisis were particularly hard on Baltimore’s many fragile neighbourhoods. In 2012, Wells Fargo was ordered to pay out to the city and many of its residents a record $175 million for discriminatory lending. The city accused the lender of steering minorities into subprime loans, providing less favourable rates than whites then foreclosing on hundreds of homes, causing blight and higher public safety costs

What numbers don’t reveal is the civic pride and the sense of community that binds Downtown/Seton Hill and other communities. But these are only small parts of the solution to persistent, systemic inequality.

This is not a partisan problem. But no one can seem to find a starting point to solve it. I suggest that elected officials look at some of the work that is already underway in countries around the world where policy makers have chosen to put ideology aside and approach the issues that are condemning portions of their populations to systemic poverty. There are processes and best practices to begin to reduce systemic inequality and the good news is they circumvent the tired dichotomies of too little or too much government or the problem of throwing money at ideas that haven’t worked. It starts with policy frameworks that support inclusive growth. This is a major thrust of work at the OECD. In our Public Governance Directorate, we work with member countries and partners as they go beyond “taking stock,” designing, implementing and evaluating policies that help give traction to all actors and would-be actors in the economy.

OECD work on the regional and city-level shows just how critical the spatial dimension is to accessing resources and services that ensure the well-being of citizens–a lesson that is painfully demonstrated in the stark differences between two Baltimore neighbourhoods.

 A portrait in inequality: two contiguous Baltimore neighbourhoods
Source: City of Baltimore

Inner Harbor/Federal Hill Downtown/Seton Hill All of Baltimore
Total population 12,855 6,446 616,802
White 81.5% 37.5% 29.7%
African American/Black 11.7% 41.8% 63.3%
Unemployment 2.5% 4.8% 11.1%
Median Household income 19.5% earn less than $25,000 36.3% earn less than $25,000 33.3% earn less than $25,000
Families in poverty 8.8% 21.8% 15.2%
Aged 25 or older with Bachelors’ degree 69.2 58.7%* 25.0%
Tobacco store density (store per 10,000 inhabitants) 38.1 130.3 22.8
Fast food restaurants per 10,000 residents 5.4 35.7 2.4
Number of homicides per 10,000 residents (based on location of victim, not residence) 6.2 34.1 20.9
Life expectancy (years) 77.1 63.9 71.8
Age-adjusted mortality (deaths per 10,000 residents) 83.5 238 110.4
Total annual years of potential life lost (per 10,000 residents) 617.3 1511.1 1372.3
Avertible Deaths (if every community had the health services of the top 5 communities) 15.5% 70.1% 36.1%
Mortality rate from:
– Heart disease 23.5 71.0 28.4
– Cancer (lung) 5.5 16.1 6.9
– HIV/AIDS 1.3 10.4 3.9
– Homicide 0.4 3.4 3.5
– Drug induced 1.1 3.6 2.8
– Diabetes 2.9 5.5 3.2

*High number reflects proximity of University of Maryland campus. For example, the percentage of the population with a Bachelors’ degree is 10% in Upton/Druid Heights, the neighbourhood directly to the north.

Useful links

OECD work on inclusive growth

OECD work on trust in government

OECD work on inclusive growth and public governance

Inclusive growth publications from the OECD



Senescence in the City

ageing in citiesAnecdotal evidence suggests there are loads of grumpy old men and women around. A new, evidence-based report from the OECD offers some clues as to why this should be. The media are full of articles about the best places to retire to, and the typical result is a small town in a largely rural county, near the sea and maybe a golf course. The reality, according to Ageing in Cities, is that nearly half of the over-65s in the OECD area live in cities. Compare that with surveys such as one by the UK travel group Saga in 2009 that found that the farther people lived from big cities, the happier they were. Just 0.5% of the 14,000 over-50s polled thought London was a desirable place to live.

Some old people are retiring to the countryside, but the trend is for the older urban population to grow, presumably due to ageing rather than migration from outlying areas. Japan is usually the top of the table in any list concerning ageing, but this time it’s just behind Italy for older people as a share of the core metropolitan population, at just over and just under 22%, respectively. For areas away from the centre though, the “hinterland”, Japan is at least five percentage points ahead of the rest, at 25%.

Even within a given metropolitan area, there can be wide discrepancies. When the babyboomers were starting their families, they favoured residential suburbs built in the 1960s and 70s to offer cheap housing. Those young families have now grown up and the children have often tended to migrate towards city centres, rejuvenating the population and bringing a new dynamism to the economy. This is only one example of the upside of the demographic trends we’re seeing in urban areas.

Ageing in Cities lists various other “opportunities” in ageing societies of particular relevance to metropolitan areas. The housing and construction sectors for instance could be boosted by the need to remodel homes to meet the needs of the elderly. The current and future generations of older people are healthier than previous ones, and likely to live many healthy years in retirement. Their abilities and experience could be useful in voluntary activities ranging from helping children with their homework to passing on high-level skills and knowledge.

There are a number of problems (or “challenges” if you prefer) that could get worse though. For instance, increasing centralisation of services could leave many old people with inadequate access to health care, shops and social activities if transport planning does not take their needs into account. There could be social and political tensions around how to spend municipal budgets.

The priorities for policy makers will depend to a large extent on the stage of the demographic transition their city is going through: ageing cities with slow population growth where the share of the older population will eventually decline; young cities that are rapidly ageing; or young cities that are ageing slowly. Whatever the case, the report argues that a number of policy strategies can be useful. Outlawing the music, clothes, hairstyles and pastimes young people like would be an obvious first step for many old people, and that may be how they interpret “Visions for ageing societies should not exclusively target the older population.”

The OECD, however, is not advocating a Bieber-ban. It proposes using a number of indicators (on health, housing, transport, employment, etc.) that will help citizens, their representatives and public employees to understand the demographic shifts and decide how best to deal with them, or better still, anticipate them.

Ageing in Cities is full of interesting examples of what different places are actually doing already. The Yokohama Walking Point Programme for instance encourages people of all ages to improve their health by walking more using the “frequent flyer” model of airlines: the more you walk, the more points you get and these can be converted into discounts at local shops.

A change of attitude towards old people, and even what “old” means is central to many of the policies discussed. It’s customary to bemoan the lack of respect for older generations, but as the French historian Philippe Ariès pointed out, this has changed over time. From the Middle Ages until the end of the 17th century, the old were held in contempt. At best, they were expected to “retire” into a life of contemplation and study, and if possible, die quickly so their eldest son could take over (and not have to kill them). If they didn’t, they were like Molière’s “barbons” (greybeards), old men in their 40s ridiculed for not knowing when to quit. That changed in the 18th century when the classical Greek and Roman ideas of noble elders became fashionable again, to the extent that cheap American engravings of the time showed Christ as a white-haired oldie.

The largely positive associations persisted throughout the following century, even if there was still a strong negative undertone. The 20th century would see another major shift, with the growing popularity of retirement homes (and even communities) and other means of hiding the old and separating them from the rest of society.

It’s interesting to see a return to the 17th century ideal in some of the OECD proposals. It doesn’t actually call for a life of study, but it cites Lisbon’s Senior University where “senior” volunteers offer lectures to anybody aged over 50. It calls even less for a life of quiet contemplation, since the goal of such initiatives, like that of the Rakuno School in Toyama, Japan, is to increase the employability of older people, keep them socially active, but also to make them as light a burden on society as possible.

Useful links

Sustainable Urban Development Policies in Ageing Societies

Looking for ghosts in China

A friend in Kunming laughed when we told her our travel plans: “Chenggong? But there’s nothing there!” More accurate, perhaps, if she’d said there’s no one there.


Under construction since 2003, Chenggong is a satellite city of Kunming, capital of mountainous Yunnan province in southwest China. Such projects are not rare in China, and they tend to follow a familiar pattern: Universities and government offices are relocated, students and officials move in and, eventually, so do other people.

Chenggong is different: Yes it has students and, as far as we know, bureaucrats but – so far at least – pretty much no one else. Its wide-open highways and empty estates have won it plenty of attention in the blogosphere and earned it a reputation as one of Asia’s biggest “ghost cities”.

In truth, the place is not as quiet as all that. Around the spacious university campuses there’s a noticeable buzz. A few small streets are filled with shops selling student necessities – cheap grub and trendy clothes. On one campus, an English-language student, Tina, showed us around and enthused about the quality of the facilities. When we asked her if she liked Chenggong, she nodded enthusiastically: “Oh yes, the air is so clean.” That, too, is often a novelty in China.


But, elsewhere, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Chenggong lacks people. Cars bowl along six-lane highways at speeds unthinkable in most of China’s congested cities, while passengers seem sparse on the light railway that will eventually link the city to the provincial capital. Driving back to Kunming in the evening, we passed housing estates where not a single light seemed to be shining. According to the World Bank’s Holly Krambeck, Chenggong has over 100,000 empty apartments.

Regardless of how many people Chenggong eventually manages to attract, the city is part of one of the most remarkable human transformations in history. In just a little over three decades, China has gone from being a country that was overwhelmingly rural to one where just over half the population now lives in urban areas.

That might sound high but, by international standards, and for a country at its level of development, China still has a relatively small urban population. That wasn’t always the case. As a fascinating recent OECD paper by Vincent Koen, Richard Herd, Xiao Wang and Thomas Chalaux notes, China was once one of the most urbanised places in the world, admittedly in an era when globally around 90% of people lived in the countryside. By around 700 C.E., the city of Chang’an – now known as Xi’an, home of the terracotta warriors – is believed to have had around a million inhabitants, levels that London and Paris would only reach in the 1800s.

By the dawn of the 20th century, however, the proportion of Chinese living in cities hadn’t changed much in 400 years and, throughout that troubled century, it grew only very slowly. By 1949, urban dwellers accounted for just 12% of the population, around a third of levels then typical in the world.

Today, China is playing catch-up. In the last decade, the urban population rose by about 20 million a year; by 2020 the government expects around three out of five people to be living in urban areas. And by 2040, it’s estimated that around one billion Chinese will be living in cities.

China’s government believes cities are essential to building a modern economy. For one thing, cities make it easier for companies to do business, making them hubs for growth. For another, city dwellers tend to spend more than their country cousins, which should help China meet its goal of relying less on exports and more on domestic demand. So, cities will be key to China’s economic and social future. But planning them will require careful thinking about their “hardware” and “software”, to borrow a metaphor.

For an example of the hardware, take transport. By international standards, Chinese cities have relatively low levels of public transportation. That’s evident even in a new town like Chenggong, where, as urban planner Luis Balula notes, “the wide streets and superblocks […] continue conveying the image of a car-oriented urban environment waiting to be populated by cars.”


According to the OECD paper, China would need to invest the equivalent of around 11% of its GDP just to bring transport provision in its ten biggest cities up to international standards.

As for the software, think of that as the people who will live in China’s cities. Many will be rural migrants and, so far at least, the legal situation in China’s cities hasn’t worked in their favour. And that’s a topic we’ll return to soon.

Useful links

Policies for Inclusive Urbanisation in China (2013, OECD Economics Dept.)

OECD work on China

网站 (中文) (The OECD’s Chinese-language site)