Cities are our future -- but we must make them work.
Humanity faces the momentous task of ensuring urban centers are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable so that they can become the new frontier of human development and progress.
Yossi Mekelberg Moving to the big city appeals above all to the young, who are attracted to the bright lights, but quickly discover that employment opportunities and affordable accommodation are not so easy to find and have not kept pace with a rapidly expanding population. And for the 800 million people around the world who are condemned to live in city slums, life is often a misery and always a daily struggle. Given that in the next few decades urban populations worldwide are likely to grow exponentially -- especially in India, China and Nigeria -- planning is needed to increase the benefits emerging from urban life, and counter the drawbacks of congested and often disadvantaged communities chasing ever-dwindling resources. The challenges of congestion, shortage of funds for basic services, and failure to cope with the growing demand for housing, all of which are exacerbated by inadequate and antiquated infrastructures, must be met with an integrated, holistic approach if our cities are to develop sustainably. Cities are in desperate need of constant reinvigoration through fresh ideas and cutting-edge technologies, and this in turn requires a constant stream of new, young and diverse blood; but regrettably our cities are becoming less and less hospitable to youth and diversity. Some of the challenges that cities face are inter-related. People move to them in droves in the hope of finding employment, but there is a big mismatch between job creation in cities and job losses elsewhere. Consequently, many end up unemployed or trapped in low-wage occupations. Unemployment, when combined with inadequate housing, puts severe pressure on public services and also results in increased crime, which is a major challenge for cities, especially the big ones. And if crime is a social consequence of population density, cities also face the wrath of nature. Since more than 90 percent of all urban centers are located in coastal areas, it is estimated that 650 million urban inhabitants are at risk of floods, freshwater scarcity and other ecological and economic hardships resulting from climate change, including air pollution. Moreover, conflicts and political instability have pushed about 60 percent of the world's 14.4 million refugees and 80 percent of its 38 million internally displaced persons to live in urban areas, creating further pressure on resources and infrastructure. Attention is mostly paid to the megacities such as Tokyo, with 38 million inhabitants, followed by Delhi, with 25 million, or other cities in which more than 20 million people reside, such as Shanghai, Mumbai, Beijing, or the New York area. But there is also a wide range of urban settlements with fewer inhabitants that are growing at a faster rate than the megacities, and they face similar issues in terms of long-term planning. The mirror image of the rise and rise of urbanization is the concurrent decline in the world's rural population, in relative and even absolute terms. This will change, for a very long time and maybe permanently, the relationship between people and nature, and among human beings themselves. In the meantime, as was recently stated by the World Bank, it remains a momentous task of our generation to build cities that "work." In other words, cities that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Whether humanity can live up to this task and make cities the new frontier of human development and progress remains to be seen.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent's University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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