Thursday, September 4, 2014

UN projects 6.3 billion people will be living in cities by 2050

Delhi, which had a population of just under 10 million in 1990, will be home to more than 36 million by 2030, according to projections.
The merits of the city have been debated as far back as Aesop — so, since about 600 B.C., or slightly before parking spots in central London were sold for the cost of a maybe-renovated Toronto semi.

Town Mouse, Aesop tells us, visited his rural cousin, but was put off by the slim pickings for dinner and so suggested a trip back to the city. Country Mouse agreed, and was thrilled by the delicacies on offer there — until their meal was scarily interrupted not once, but twice. Country Mouse had enough and scurried home, because “better a little in safety, than an abundance surrounded by danger.”

That was then. Now, it’s probably fair to say that Country Mouse would agree the risk was worth the reward. He would stay in town, hope for a decent job, appreciate that his offspring could probably go to school, and forget he had ever once called the hedgerow home.

By 2050, the United Nations 2014 World Urbanization Prospects report projects that 66 per cent of the globe will be living in cities. Today, just over half of us live in cities; in 1950, only 30 per cent of the world’s population was urban.

“Everywhere, it’s the big cities that are most attractive to everybody,” says Andre Sorensen, chair of the University of Toronto’s human geography department. “It’s the big main cities that are the attractors for population, because that’s where the opportunities are.”

“A city,” agrees Somik Lall, the World Bank’s lead urban economist, “offers an economic structure that gets you out of doing labour on the farm, provides you higher wages. You can send your kids to school, if you have girls they can have better access to education — you know, cities are pretty good.”

The term urbanization often conjures images of slums and substandard living conditions, and that is the reality for many people in the developing world. The book Planet of Slums noted that “the five great metropolises of South Asia — Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Dhaka — alone contain about 15,000 distinct slum communities with a total population of more than 20 million.”

Even the UN report on urbanization uses an image of Rocinha, one of Rio de Janeiro’s infamous hillside slum communities — where adventurous visitors can pay tour companies about $40 for a three-hour walking tour — on its cover page.

Still, experts and the UN say that, generally, cities are good for people: “Urban living is often associated with higher levels of literacy and education, better health, greater access to social services, and enhanced opportunities for cultural and political participation,” the report says.

“Urbanization generally is a very positive thing,” Sorensen agrees. “It results in higher living standards, higher incomes, more opportunities, more educational opportunities — so overall, it’s a very positive thing for the people who migrate. And it also is more environmentally sustainable. People tend to use less energy in big cities than they do in small towns and rural places.”

What makes a city a city? Alongside obvious measures like population, factors such as density, infrastructure — paved roads, electricity and sewers — and how many people are working in jobs other than agriculture are considered. The UN report admits determining where a city starts and ends can be difficult, so its population numbers usually refer to the metropolitan area.

But it is those numbers — and by extension, the future world they suggest — that are so engrossing. Currently, one in eight people live in one of the globe’s 28 so-called “megacities,” places with populations of more than 10 million. By 2030, there will be 41 megacities, seven of them in China. Why?

“The answer is rather straightforward: there’s great demand for these places. If you were to take the economy of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou together, they account for a trillion dollars a year,” Lall says. “That’s bigger than the economy of Norway, Sweden, about the same as South Korea’s economy.

“So these are huge economies,” he adds. “Clearly, the jobs they deliver are attracting millions of workers from the countryside to be part of the action.”

It should be no surprise, then, that Forbes magazine’s ranking of the world’s most influential places was packed with megacities: London, New York, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo and Los Angeles were all on the list. (Other big, but not mega, cities such as Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Toronto and the greater San Francisco area made Forbes’ cut.)

The world’s urban population has boomed since 1950: the report says there were 746 million urbanites then, compared with nearly four billion today, and that population will reach 6.3 billion by 2050. And “just three countries — India, China and Nigeria — together are expected to account for 37 per cent of the projected growth of the world’s urban population.”

Delhi, which in 1990 was the world’s 12th largest city — with a population of just under 10 million — will be home to 36,060,000 by 2030. Lagos’ population was about five million in 1990. By 2030, it’s estimated that almost 25 million people will be in Nigeria’s largest city.

In between the small city — fewer than 500,000 people, and home to half the world’s city residents — and the megacity is the large city, with a population of five to 10 million, and the medium city, where one to five million people live.

Many medium cities are — like Toronto — the biggest in their country. (The report also cites Sydney, Addis Ababa, and Montevideo, Uruguay, as examples.) The populations of those cities are “expected to increase by another 36 per cent between 2014 and 2030, growing from 827 million to 1.1 billion.”

Toronto’s population is estimated to reach nearly seven million by 2030, making it the 65th largest city in the world, and the fifth largest in North America, behind Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Just as cities evolve, the definition of a megacity, too, has evolved. And Sorensen calls it “one of those phony statistical thresholds.”

“If you’ve got 9,999,000 people you’re not a megacity,” he says. “There’s no real difference between say, 9 million and 10 million. There is a difference between 10 million and 2 million in how a city functions.”

“Once you get into that range, over seven (million), over eight, over 10, over 15 — then cities really function differently because it gets so big, and governance issues get really challenging,” Sorensen says.

Lall agrees, saying that cities have the opportunity to be “distance busters — that is, to connect people with opportunities.” But if cities aren’t well managed, they can become dysfunctional: crime, squalor, disease.

“You know, if you and I are sitting next to each other, we share an idea, we go to the market and we innovate on it, so that density of city provides this opportunity for creativity,” Lall says. “But just as easily, you and I are sitting beside each other and I have a disease and it’s just as easy to pass it on to you.

“So while the density of cities is really good, it’s also, if not well managed, it could be very problematic.”

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