Urbanisation – A megatrend that will define our future

Urbanisation – A megatrend that will define our future

Urban living is the dominant lifestyle of the future. By 2050, two thirds of the world population will live in cities. In the next two decades, the number of people living in urban spaces will grow by 1.4 million a week. Therefore, the current preparations for the UN-Habitat III conference in 2016, where a “New Urban Agenda“ will be established, are of utmost importance.

In the course of growing urbanisation, both the potential as well as the challenges of global development are increasingly concentrating in cities. Therefore, the fundamental role of urbanisation must be reflected in German policymaking. Particularly two challenges should be focused on: the eradication of poverty and the transformation toward sustainability.

These two topics, poverty reduction and sustainability, create different challenges in different cityscapes, to which there are no blanket solutions. Therefore, these challenges must be addressed within the context of all existing city types, such as the wildly growing or shrinking cities, megacities, smaller and mid-sized cities, as well as fragile or “failing cities“, which display a significant lack of political leadership.

As motors of national and global growth, cities generate about 80 percent of the worldwide GDP. Simultaneously, the reduction of poverty in rapidly growing cities is becoming a significant challenge. This coming generation will already live in a world where every third person lives in informal settlements, and therefore under extremely vulnerable conditions. This statistic reveals the increasing deficits present in residential construction, urban services, infrastructures, and law enforcement.

All of these problems raise the urgent question of how living conditions in informal settlements can be improved, while also designed in more sustainable manners. Collaborative approaches in which residents, city governments, and intermediary organisations work together offer a basis for realistic and solution-oriented policy measures, and should therefore be supported. In the transnational initiative Slum Dwellers International, for example, slum dwellers have become active in creating new, liveable, and safe living spaces within the framework of such a coalition.

Apart from poverty eradication, the move toward sustainability must stand at the centre of policymaking. Cities will decide whether this transformation – and therefore the preservation of humanity’s natural livelihood – will succeed. Currently, cities are already responsible for about 70 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Cities are decisive contributors and simultaneous victims of global changes. But cities are also potential problem solvers that possess special transformative and innovative potential.

The significance of cities for global development requires an integrated perspective and a comprehensive urbanisation concept. The model for this should rest on three pillars: a people-oriented approach, which takes into account the needs of city dwellers, as well as their potential toward self-actualisation and participation; a broader concept of welfare that also takes subjective wellbeing into account; and sustainability on a comprehensive level.

Sustainability requires the consideration of planetary guard rails, meaning the damage thresholds for global environmental changes, whose crossing would have intolerable consequences. An example for this kind of guard rail concept, developed by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), is the 2°C limit in the context of international climate policymaking. When guard rails are crossed, the preservation of natural living conditions and therefore the eradication of poverty becomes threatened. The planetary guard rails must therefore play a central role in a successful urbanisation concept.

With this in mind, there are four different fields of action that contain comprehensive chances and risks for global development: first, the spacial construction of cities, particularly their level of density; second, infrastructure, particularly with a focus on energy, mobility, and buildings; third, welfare in cities; fourth, urban governance and cities in global governance.

From the perspective of global sustainability, urban density as well as urban infrastructure, with a focus on energy, buildings, and mobility, are essential. These two components have an enormously high guard rail relevance, and must therefore be emphasised. They determine the use of resources, the pressure exerted on ecosystems, and the emission of greenhouse gases. The current problem is that the growth of cities is unstructured, and geared towards motorised private transport. A look at Atlanta and Barcelona illustrates the difference these cities reveal when compared under the same context. The New Climate Economy Report 2014 stresses that both cities have about 5 million inhabitants, but while Atlanta extends to over 4,200 km2 and emits 7.5 tons of transport related CO2 per capita, Barcelona is much more compact, with a surface area of 162 km2 and CO2 emissions of only 0.7 tons per capita. Furthermore, Barcelona, as opposed to Atlanta, has a capable public transport system.

More compact and better connected cities with a sustainable mobility system can therefore help overcome central sustainability challenges. There are many positive examples of this. Global megacities and “matured“ centres such as London, Tokyo, and Hamburg have become denser in the past years, not in small part due to investment in public transport systems. And Curitiba and Bogotá are part of the 160 model cities that have become successful flagships for the benefits of bus rapid transit (BRT) that offer reliable transportation to millions of passengers, therefore decreasing transport costs, traffic jams, and health hazards, while simultaneously improving safety and environmental quality.

Cities reveal how the third field of action – welfare – is not only dependant on economic dimensions such as GDP. Therefore, components of welfare that address subjective elements of people’s wellbeing, but are not necessarily large drivers of resources and emissions and therefore do not pose direct threats to planetary guard rails must also be considered. Social justice, education, civil engagement, security, and participation are examples of such dimensions.

The fourth field of action – governance – should be addressed through transformative governance strategies that support the move toward more sustainability and that contribute toward creating a people-oriented urbanisation and realizing new welfare concepts. For instance, questions regarding the possibilities of political participation for city inhabitants, deciding how much fiscal autonomy and what regulatory capacities cities should have in a complex multi-level governance system, and how their role as a new and significant transnational actor can be strengthened in global governance are all important to consider.

This article is part of IFAIR’s cooperation with the Diplomatic Magazine and was published first in its February 2015-issue.