Megacities will save mankind, not doom it

The future of the city is the future of our society. By 2050, 70 per cent of the world’s population is likely to be urban, with many living in megacities of more than 10 million people. In some countries, the pace of change is extraordinary.

What took Europe 200 years is now taking 20 in China and India. In 1950, the fishing village of Shenzhen in south-east China had 3,148 inhabitants. By 2025, the UN predicts, it will exceed 15 million. Urbanisation has accelerated by a factor of 10, and this has been accompanied by a shift of balance from the so-called “developed” to “developing” countries.

Much of this growth elicits fear and consternation. Serried ranks of soulless skyscrapers march across the urban landscapes of Beijing, Shanghai, Jakarta or Lagos. Rice paddies and green fields are covered in asphalt and concrete. Monstrous traffic jams, with average commutes of more than four hours, are normal in Mexico City, São Paulo or Bangkok. Air quality in these megacities has broken all standards set by the World Health Organisation. Some have suggested that breathing on a bad day in Beijing equates to smoking a pack of cigarettes.

London is a global megacity in a medium sized country Photo: Alamy
London is a global megacity in a medium sized country Photo: Alamy

Over the next decades, the onslaught of urban growth will occur elsewhere. It will happen in deprived parts of Africa and Asia that today lack access to basic services such as clean water and sanitation. Countless people will move into cities still struggling with uncontrolled development, lack of investment and poor governance.

But, as leaders prepare for the UN climate change summit in Paris (COP21) next week, we must grasp the fact that cities do not have to exacerbate social and environmental difficulties. Well‑designed, well-governed cities will in fact improve the lives of billions of people who will be newly urban by 2050.

London in the 19th century provides interesting insights. As it exploded with migrants attracted to urban jobs, it became the world’s first megacity. And, like some megacities of today, it became over-congested, dirty, polluted and dangerous. Life expectancy for a man was less than 30 years. It was, as the late planner Peter Hall described it, the “City of Dreadful Night”.

But by the late 1880s London had turned itself round. It invented the first form of metropolitan government in the world and initiated a programme of investment in a wide range of infrastructure: sewers, housing, parks, public transport and much more. Despite all the problems that we experience in the city today, London is a reminder that big cities can be tamed, humanised and improved. But to do this, they require leadership, strong design and focused investment.

In an industrialised society, buildings and the movement of goods and people between them account for two-thirds of energy consumption. As a result, cities contribute to about 70 per cent of global CO2 emissions. But while this sounds like bad news, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that cities can be designed to be both productive and clean. Stockholm reduced emissions by 35 per cent from 1993 to 2010, but grew its economy by 41 per cent, one of the highest growth rates in Europe. Copenhagen has done much the same. If Beijing, Mexico City or São Paulo were to take their cue from Stockholm, Copenhagen or even London, the impact would be startling.

Good examples are not only to be found in affluent Northern Europe. The Colombian city of Medellín – the homicide capital of the world in the Nineties – has embarked on a series of social and transport projects recently, including cable cars to service the poorest slums, which have contributed to a more stable and sustainable urban society. Today, Medellín and Colombia’s capital, Bogotá, are seen as examples of how to turn cities around through investment in infrastructure such as cycleways, bus rapid transit systems, libraries and schools – all driven by charismatic and committed mayors.

Design plays a huge part. Cities that are consistently rated highly by the public in terms of quality of life are relatively compact and pedestrian-friendly, with good public transport and generous parks and civic spaces. These more desirable cities are comparatively dense and have evolved historically from a traditional European concept. They consume less energy than the more recent suburban model of cities – like LA with its low-density housing and a dependence on car travel. A new study suggests that urban sprawl costs the US economy more than $1 trillion annually.

Across the globe, people are likely to live longer and healthier lives in cities. In most countries in the world, cities provide better access to education and health services. The longest life expectancies today can be found in high-density, highly developed cities like Hong Kong or Singapore. Unlike cumbersome national governments and international organisations, cities can act quickly and decisively. When it comes to the future of life on Earth, cities are not the problem – they are the solution.

Norman Foster is a British architect.

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