The future is urban

Digital TransformationGreen TransitionInnovation

For most of humanity, cities are the future. Not only are cities not going away, they are going to be a home for an ever increasing proportion of the world’s population, and they are also going to be the key to meeting all of the greatest challenges the future has in store for humans.

Fighting the climate crisis, eliminating poverty, reducing inequality, ending world hunger and improving education. “The goals are global in scope, but the implementation is local,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres, commemorating this year’s World Cities Day on 31 October.

“Local is the space where we connect the dots. Cities and towns can spearhead innovations to bridge the inequalities gaps, deliver climate action and ensure a green and inclusive recovery from the pandemic,” Guterres also noted in his foreword to the World Cities Report 2022, a 422-page analysis titled “Envisaging the Future of the Cities”.

The report concludes that the future of humanity is undoubtedly urban. The percentage of total population living in cities has been growing steadily in the past decades, and has reached 56% in 2021. The UN predicts this figure will reach 68% by 2050 – more than two thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by the middle of the current century.

Up to 2.2 billion more people will be living in cities than they do today, with all of the world’s regions expected to become more urbanised. This population will not be spread exclusively over large metropolitan areas, however, meaning there will be many different urban models of cities in the future. Additionally, regional differences will play a huge role in shaping and directing individual cities.

According to the UN, all of the world’s cities will have to adapt to the challenges of climate change and rising inequality levels, but cities in different regions of the world will face a number of different challenges. In developed countries, including nearly all cities in Europe, the key priorities will also include managing cultural diversity, upgrading and modernising their ageing infrastructure, addressing shrinking and declining cities, and meeting the needs of an increasingly older population.

With the growing number of societal, environmental and economic challenges, the UN argues that building resilience must be at the heart of the future of cities. Economic resilience with new fiscal sustainability frameworks, societal resilience with universal social protection schemes, climate resilience with greener investments and stronger multilevel collaboration to confront future shocks must be the building blocks of a resilient urban future, the UN report stresses.

Transiting to a net-zero economy will be impossible without recognising the role of urban areas. There is a need to develop policies to support action at the subnational level, limiting carbon emissions or reducing vulnerabilities. The UN also emphasises how nature-based solutions offer the opportunity to develop a wide range of responses to urban environmental challenges.

There is also a need for a continued paradigm shift toward environmentally friendly and human-centric energy and mobility options. The UN report suggests this can be achieved through efficient public transport and active mobility when integrated with energy-efficient modes, such as electric vehicles powered by clean energy.

As a new planning approach, the “15-minute city” can guide the development of neighbourhoods where residents can meet most of their daily needs within a

15-minute travel time on foot, cycle, micro-mobility or public transport. Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo is already championing this approach in the French capital, and other European cities such as Cagliari are already looking to follow suit.

The UN also emphasises the link between advances in technology and urban futures. The future of cities will be knowledge-based, driven largely by innovation and the widespread use of

new technologies and digitization of virtually all facets of urban life. Local governments need to prepare their economies for the effects of advancing automation and digitalization.

While full technological sovereignty may be out of reach, city governments have an opportunity

and responsibility to co-determine how innovation and technology are designed for, and applied in, cities. They should initiate, and participate in, technology assessments, and involve other urban stakeholders in the process.

With urban resilience at the heart of the cities’ future, the UN notes that local governments already have a comprehensive framework for integrated, multi-level action in the form of Sustainable Development Goals, the New Urban Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

This key goal – building resilience – cannot be reached without public participation. Any effort to prepare resilience plans, draft policies or implement projects will have greater prospects for success if undertaken using active participatory methods so that all residents and stakeholders are involved in planning and decision-making. This will also help residents develop a shared sense of ownership.

“We have only about 87 months, 380 weeks or 2600 days left to implement the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of the UN Habitat programme. “The best way to do this is by ensuring our cities and communities are sustainable.”

Marking the World Cities Day, Mohd Sharif stressed that it is city managers and their communities that have the power to help Governments translate policy into practice. City managers engage the right partners, and find solutions by working together with their communities. “More than ever, we need to work towards achieving transformative change in our cities to build the future we want,” said Mohd Sharif.

(Image credit: pikisuperstar / Freepik)