Our Urban Future
Sometime in 2008, the world will cross an invisible but momentous milestone: the point at which more than half the people on the planet—roughly 3.2 billion human beings—live in cities.
Urban centers are hubs simultaneously of breathtaking artistic innovation and some of the world’s most abject and disgraceful poverty. They are the dynamos of the world economy but also the breeding grounds for alienation, religious extremism and other sources of local and global insecurity. Cities are now both pioneers of groundbreaking environmental policies and the direct or indirect source of most of the world’s resource destruction and pollution.
This modern “tale of two cities” is something that every policymaker and citizen needs to understand. The battles against our greatest global problems, from unemployment and HIV infections to water shortages, terrorism and climate change, will be largely won—or lost—in the world’s cities. Yet from 1970 to 2000, urban aid worldwide was estimated at $60 billion—just 4 percent of the $1.5 trillion in development assistance.
In 1950, only New York and Tokyo had populations of more than 10 million. Today there are 20 of these so-called megacities. But most of the growth in the decades ahead will come in smaller cities. As early as 2030, four out of five of the world’s urban residents will be in what we now call the “developing” world.
The demographic and political impacts of this transformation will test us. The great majority of the population growth in the new urban centers of Africa and Asia is in the unplanned and underserved settlements commonly known as slums. Over one quarter of urban residents in the developing world—more than half a billion people—lack clean water and sanitation, and 1.6 million die each year as a result.
The face of twenty-first century cities is often that of a small, malnourished child living in a vast slum in a city such as Abidjan, Kolkata or Mexico City, not far from the newly built opera houses, gleaming office buildings and automobile-choked highways that are now common even in poor countries. This child frequently lacks electricity, clean water or even a nearby toilet. For that child in the slum, pollution-related sickness and violence are daily threats, while education and health care are a distant hope.
Our ability to meet the needs of the urban poor is one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of this century. It is also going to shape key global developments—from the security of those who live in nearby luxury apartments to the stability of Arctic ice sheets near the planet’s poles. It is particularly ironic that the battle to save the world’s remaining healthy ecosystems will be won or lost not in the tropical forests or coral reefs that are threatened but on the streets of the most unnatural landscapes on the planet.
At stake is the ability of those ecosystems to provide the food, fiber, fresh water and climate stability that all cities depend on. Nearly two thirds of these “ecosystem services” have already been degraded, according to the latest scientific estimates. Our challenge is to avoid the fate of the great Mayan cities that lie in ruins in the jungles of southern Mexico and Guatemala—cities that were abandoned not just because of forces at work within their borders but because of the collapse of the surrounding agricultural lands and water resources after centuries of overexploitation.
The task of saving the world’s modern cities might seem equally hopeless—except that it is already happening. Particularly striking is the self-reliance being demonstrated by both rich and poor communities that have stepped in to fill gaps left by governments. Even necessities such as food, energy, clean water and sanitation are increasingly being produced by urban pioneers, using innovative technlogies and delivery systems, inside city limits.
As U.S. policy makers seek lasting solutions to problems such as climate change, immigration and terrorism, they will need to understand that unless we create prosperous, clean and sustainable cities, none of these problems has a chance of being surmounted.