Global urbanization is imminent; it's up to us to ensure it's done right.
Human history has consisted of the rise and fall of agrarian societies. Today, 54 percent of the world’s population — the largest share in history — live in cities. The United Nations projects an increase to 66 percent in urban population by 2050. The 2018 revision of the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects expects 35 percent of that growth to be concentrated in just India, China and Nigeria.
As the worldwide urban population has grown rapidly from 742 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018, the world’s rural population has risen steadily since 1950 and is expected to reach its peak in the next several years. Dense urban growth has led to the rise of 28 megacities worldwide, a number predicted to rise to 41 by 2030. Global urbanization is happening. Our responsibility lies in ensuring that it’s executed properly.
“Urban density, done well, has all kinds of benefits,” says urbanist Brent Toderian. “People who live in dense, walkable areas tend to be physically healthier, happier and more productive. Governments pay less in infrastructure costs to support urbanites than they do suburbanites. Per capita energy consumption is lower in dense areas, which is good for air pollution and climate change.”
But density is only acquired through increased development, sparking outrage among people already living in cities who don’t want to be pushed aside. The problem is exacerbated because cities are organized around the need for cars. With expanses of cities covered by parking lots and roads, sustainable high density seems less achievable. Once urban population increases, city planners in already existing cities and planners in newly burgeoning ones will have to address these spatial issues. Without transforming every city’s housing prospects into Hong Kong’s “cage homes,” there are multiple ways to create more density in a finite amount of space. Toderian suggests the development of high-rise apartments or terraced street layouts.
Cities should spend on amenities that make density sustainable, a phenomenon called “bonusing.” These include libraries, community centers, parks and other public facilities that the city is able to afford because of, rather than in spite of, its high density; these facilities also improve the residential quality of life.
Urbanization often goes hand in hand with gentrification. California is in the midst of a housing crisis. California’s cities became too expensive to live in, and middle-class workers were pushed out of the city to the suburbs, creating long commutes and traffic congestion.
In California’s case, increased development is made difficult by restrictions on land usage. In the future, urban planners and city governments must be aware of the pitfalls of urban societies. Better transit zoning and more affordable housing are compulsory to maintaining existing communities.
Among the biggest global concerns regarding mass urbanization is its role in expediting climate change. Cities are responsible for the majority of the world’s carbon emissions, and a growing urban landscape seems counterintuitive to environmental protection. But increased urbanization may actually help the environment. In a well-designed dense city, people would live a comfortable enough distance from their workplaces, allowing them to commute by foot or on bicycle rather than by car or on public transit.
In America alone, and for the first time since 1979, cars, trucks and airplanes emit more carbon dioxide than power plants do. Public transit is America’s primary climate challenge. Denser cities would cut down on the need for such methods of travel.
Governments should create public parks and increase legal protections for existing green spaces. Environmental safety in the wake of global urbanization comes down to government’s will to preserve such spaces. It’s our responsibility to vote with the environment in mind.
The biggest contributor to urban growth is the influx of younger people moving into cities. After a century of suburban growth outpacing urban growth, millennials have bucked the trend of moving from cities into small towns to settle down. Younger generations are also the most environmentally conscious demographic.
Urbanization “done right” looks like dense development that is both good for the environment and good for the people who live in it. We can expect an increased fusion of different cultures as more people flock to cities in the coming years, as well as more vocal advocates for lower-income communities and the preservation of the environment.