For the first time in history more than half the world’s population resides in cities. The world’s urban population now stands at 3.7 billion people, and this number is expected to double by 2050. The trend towards urbanization is only accelerating and 96 percent of all urbanization by 2030 will occur in the developing world. This global shift toward a more urban global population has profound implications for a wide range of issues including food, water, and energy consumption. The move towards urban concentration is a fact, and as city life becomes a reality for an ever-greater share of the world’s population, governments, companies, and civil society must recognize that they are largely unequipped to deal with city-level problems.
The international system typically operates through national level actors, and the way we think about international challenges is through national capitals and national governments. For example, diplomacy is carried out in national capitals and lending from multilateral development banks is often disbursed to national governments. Given the growing importance and cross-cutting nature of development challenges in urban centers, this issue needs to move up on the global agenda and new ways of working with and through provincial and city governments must be emphasized.
If cities are equipped with the right leaders, strategies, and financing, urbanization can bring about immense positive changes in the lives of billions. Cities are engines of economic growth and cultural development and can offer countless benefits to their inhabitants. UN Habitat released a report in 2011 which concluded that cities are responsible for disproportionately higher rates of economic growth when compared with rural areas: with just over 50% of total world population, cities generate more than 80% of global GDP. This effect is even more pronounced in developing countries: for example, Nairobi is home to just 9% of Kenya’s population but generates 20% of GDP.
The rapid changes brought on by urban growth also have the potential to be destabilizing if managed poorly. While the world has seen mass urbanization in the past, the most recent wave is unique in that it is focused in the developing world, including Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Great strain will be placed on developing cities’ resources, infrastructure, and leaders, all of which are unaccustomed to such rapid growth. One major change that will accompany urban growth is increased demand for energy and water. Global water demand is expected to increase by 55% by 2050, and global energy demand will increase by about 33% by 2035. This projected increase in water and electricity consumption is directly related to future urban population growth— urban residents use significantly more water and energy.
Urban growth presents an opportunity to connect more people to water and electricity, making them healthier and more productive. It also presents the risk of overwhelming various public goods, including power, infrastructure, health, and education as these systems adjust to increased demand. Urbanization can be a positive, but if poorly managed will only amplify existing challenges. The recent Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa was an urban phenomenon, and was accelerated by poor municipal level systems. Other risks, including gang violence and extremism leading to terrorism, can fester in urban settings if not properly addressed.
City leaders are often only elected for four year terms, while important infrastructure projects with high up-front costs may take a decade or more to yield results or political returns. At a recent event at my CSIS day job, one panelist aptly called this problem of foregoing important long term projects “Not in My Term of Office” or “NIMTO”. The U.S. and others can help overcome the NIMTO problem in a number of ways: financial assistance can help blunt the up-front costs of some of these projects, and technical assistance can help provide decision-makers and their constituents with information that clearly demonstrates the benefits of what may appear to be costly or unneeded projects (despite their future importance and cost-savings).
Strong city leadership is the key to turning this unstoppable wave of urbanization into a wave of prosperity. Given the way that cities can foster growth and creativity, greater urbanization could be an unprecedented business opportunity for the U.S. to provide infrastructure, technology, and financial services and other necessary products and services. The consequences of urbanization gone wrong— including violent crime, extremism, pollution and poor health outcomes— can be mitigated or even avoided with strong leadership. The U.S. and others should make confronting this wave of urbanization a priority.
Article published in Forbes.com on February 24, 2015.