New Delhi Street

In the early nineteenth century, the age of industrialization brought about profound demographic and economic transformations across Europe and North America, most notably, in the increasing concentration of people in highly urbanized area. It became the phenomenon that defined the modern era and moved society to the next level of human development.

It took less than a century for the West to go from rural and agricultural to urban and industrial, as millions were quickly on the move, shifting away from the countryside of their ancestors to the rapidly expanding cities of the future – carrying with them enormous opportunities and far-reaching implications for modern development and twentieth century human organization.

This time, as developing countries climb higher up the socio-economic ladder, people are once again on the move, and like the West over a century ago, the future is looking even more urban.

In 2008, according to the World Bank Institute, for the first time in history, more than half the world’s population lives in cities, with 90 percent of urban growth taking place in the developing world. The distribution of the world’s population continues to shift. The U.N. Population Division estimates that within the next 50 years, the number of people living in the world’s urban areas is expected to increase by 80 percent – moving from 3.5 billion today to a staggering 6.3 billion by 2050.

Source: OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

Source: OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

The major global development challenges that face urbanization in the twenty-first century are daunting. With cities currently responsible for 70 percent of greenhouse gases, home to high concentration of global poverty, and known for stark socio-economic disparities where the rich and poor live side by side, the cities of the future will first have to tackle the challenges of today.

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL, 2005.  The Paraisópolis favela (Paradise City shantitown) borders the affluent district of Morumbi in São Paulo, Brazil (Foto: Tuca Vieira)

The links between managing urban areas and climate change, global poverty, and rising urban inequality have not escaped the concerns of policy makers and national governments, and addressing these challenges to sustainable cities will be key in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda.

There’s a reason why cities are growing.  “If well managed,” notes the 2014 revision of the UN World Urbanization Prospects, “cities offer important opportunities for economic development and for expanding access to basic services, including health care and education, for large numbers of people.” And according to the World Bank, economic prosperity happens mainly in cities, generating 80 percent of wealth and economic growth. If done right, cities can harness innovation and productivity to become “smart cities” that uses these advantages to improve quality of life, strengthen citizens’ engagement, and foster a stronger economy that is inclusive for all.

Cities have typically served to be the cradle of modernization and, in the twenty-first century, can be the key to providing unique opportunities to meet the challenges of the future.


Find out more:

‘We need to rethink urbanization in the 21st century’ – UN official

The World Bank Institute – Urban Development

Urban Mobility in the 21st Century: A Report for the NYU BMW i Project on Cities and Sustainability

Wilson Center: The Challenges of the 21st-Century City

UN: World’s population increasingly urban with more than half living in urban areas

OECD: Urban policies for an increasingly urban world


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