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Our Future is Urban

Urbanization, Devolution, and Climate Change

What we’re up against

The most important challenges for cities in the 21st century are urbanization, political devolution, and climate change. Specifically, how will each of these progress forward equitably in the face of globalization and digitization.


It’s 2050. There are 9 billion people. 7 billion in cities. Back to the present; every year, 3 million people are moving into urban areas, primarily in the Global South. Infrastructure is at a breaking point, and in many places failing. Slums will soon account for one of out three people living on the planet.

We have historically seen urbanization as a sign of progress, of a society moving forward. This is most strikingly changing in the developing world where:

  • The rate of urbanization is expected to be the highest in Africa and Asia over the coming decades. Over the next four decades, urban population is likely to treble in Africa and to increase by 1.7 times in Asia.
  • Of the 187,066 new city dwellers added to the world’s urban population every day between 2012 and 2015, 91.5 per cent, or 171,213, was born in a developing country.
  • While the number of slum dwellers has increased, the proportion of the urban population living in slums in the developing world has declined from 46 per cent in the year 1990 to an estimated 32 per cent in 2010.
  • The world’s slum population is projected to reach 889 million by 2020.

I recently spoke to an acquaintance from Nigeria, and asked him about his experience of Lagos, one of the largest cities in Africa, and the largest in Nigeria. Paraphrasing his response:

Lagos is the only city where you can accomplish the American dream. It’s entrepreneurial. The rest of the country is ethnocentric — Lagos is not. It doesn’t matter where you come from.

The Urban Age is upon us. Over 50% of the land projected to become urban by 2030 is yet to be built. This is by no means insignificant. Infrastructure impacts us in more ways than we think. A focus on active and public transportation first and foremost creates freedoms for people to find employment, see family and friends, and access healthcare. Because active transportation reduces sedentary lifestyles, it then becomes less often that trips to clinics and hospitals are needed because of a more active lifestyle. Oklahoma City lost a collective 1 million pounds from implementing more progressive transport solutions.

The impacts of urbanization are profound. They go beyond transportation choices; urbanization impacts the types of building we build and the sustainability of those buildings, the social resilience that neighborhoods do or do not have, the density required to support businesses, and more. This small section barely scratches the surface of the impact of our built environment on our lives.

There is even a philosophical discussion to be had on morality of our built environment. Everything we come into contact with impacts us in either a positive or negative way. Is our built environment not the same? For a long time, infrastructure has been used to divide. Whether it was “urban renewal” of highways that split cities (look at your city, if it’s in the US it is not unlikely to be split racially by a highway). Can the way build in a way that increases physical diversity and acceptance of others? I think so.

We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us. — Winston Churchill

Urban areas are where the future is dreamt and built. It is where people go to see opportunity. We must build opportunity.

Political Devolution

As the world continues to globalize, despite what the Republican Party might think, cities are becoming more and more a part of the global economy. Organizations have started like 100 Resilient Cities, Climate 40 (C40), the Global Council of Mayors, and the Global Forum on Cities (from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs).

What we do in one city now ripples across around the world. With this comes and increased economic power of cities; however, the political power has not followed. If we want cities to thrive, we need to devolve power to local cities as seen in both the United Kingdom and Kenya. This gives additional agency to local actors to address problems in their communities. Solution are better solved when you are close to the problem. Cities can solve their problems better than states and federal governments. Cities also are not susceptible to rising nationalism.

We’re still locked in a 17th-century paradigm of parochial national sovereignty. And yet, in the 1600’s, when nation-states were really coming into their own, less than one percent of the world’s population resided in a city. Today, it’s 54 percent.And by 2050, it will be closer to 70 percent. So the world has changed. We have these 193 nation-states, but we have easily as many cities that are beginning to rival them in power and influence. — Robert Muggah

We’ve talked about urbanization as a sign of development, but is having a mega-city in your country the best plan for your country? Recent research from the London School of Economics says otherwise.

We typically think that increased urbanization is a strong sign of economic growth. The study from Susanne A. Frick and Andrés Rodríguez Pose, Average city size and economic growth, shows that while there is a positive relationship between city size and average economic growth, the opposite is true in the developing world. Not only is there not a significant correlation between urban growth and economic development in the developing world, if often correlates to negative growth.

In the developing world, where urban growth is clearly happening at the most rapid pace, it seems that a range of small to mid-sized cities is beneficial to economic growth, as opposed to few, large, mega-cities. Can we leverage digital technology here? If used properly, digital has an ability to scale and democratize government participation in ways never seen before. Political movement can spread faster in 2017 than anytime in human history.

You can make your voice heard on and throw your hat in the ring with Run for Something. Digital has (justifiably) been under fire for the spread of false information and radicalization — we can flip the script of digital to a narrative of political inclusiveness and strengthened localism.

Climate Change

Climate change marches on in its complex dance with urbanization — simultaneously cities are (a) global warming’s cause, (b) its biggest victim, and (c) our greatest hope for a solution. — Anthony M. Townsend, Smart Cities

How is climate change impacting me? It can seem too distant, even as our world is interconnected. From Joyce Coffee, Supply Chains in the Face of a Changing Climate:

As an example, extensive flooding in Thailand in 2011, badly damaged global parts suppliers for the automotive and electronic industries causing an estimated $15–20 billion in losses. This weather event hurt the bottom line of major multinational corporations around the globe, including Cisco, Dell, Ford, Honda, HP, Toyota and many others.

Honda’s losses totaled more than $250 million when flood waters inundated an auto assembly plant, and HP estimates that more than half of its seven percent revenue decline in the fourth quarter of 2011 reflected a shortage of hard disk drives caused by this Thai flooding. While no single storm can arguably be blamed on climate change, experts predict that the world will be wracked by more and more storm events like the Thai flood of 2011.

As we have seen, just this year, with hurricanes devastating Houston and Puerto Rico, this caliber of storms is just beginning.

How do we combat climate change in a way that compliments economic growth? By taking principles of the circular economy and apply them in an urban context. Cities constitute 75% of natural resource consumption, 50% of global waste production, and 60–80% in global greenhouse gases.

The Circular Economy Diagram, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The “take-make-dispose” linear model is not a sustainable model moving forward. We need to transition to a circular economy — starting with circular cities as our testbeds. This will dramatically reduce the resource drain that we take from the Earth and instead of disposing our waste into landfills or into the atmosphere, resources will be circulated back into products and services for our use.

The circular economy is our best bet against climate change. We must move from linear to a circular supply chains, reducing our impact on the Earth, and providing economic and social benefits for us.

Cities: A New Hope

When you look at population projections, we will be 9 billion by 2050 and three quarters will live in cities, and then it will stop! It is all about speed and scale and it is totally unprecedented in human history. We have a generation to make it work. — Gregory Hodkinson, Arup Group

We only have one chance to get this right. I find myself in the generation that must successfully transition the world to a model of sustainable urban development — it is our most important challenge. The lives of people around the world are at stake, the well-being of those moving to cities in hope of a better life is at stake, and our existence on this planet is at stake. What more is there to fight for?

We need to think broadly; yes, I can “go green” myself, but we need to think about the systems that have gotten us to this point. How do we analyze them, break them, and rebuild them anew? We must ensure that the cities we build allow for upward mobility and equity through local policies and planning, we have to balance political and economic influence, and we must transition to a circular economy.

There is no better time to start than now. Our future is urban, but which urban future do we want?