Urban world

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Article Published 27 Jun 2011 Last modified 11 May 2021
3 min read
Photo: © EEA/John McConnico
Did you know? A city affects a large area outside its own boundaries. For example, London alone is thought to need an area of almost 300 times its geographical size to satisfy its demands and to dispose of its waste and emissions. (SOER 2010)

City dwellerIt's late September and the last monsoon rains have hit New Delhi hard. It's hot in the Indian capital city — in the 30s, and humid. The rain has stopped but water is everywhere. An outbreak of the mosquito-borne dengue fever has just been confirmed in the city.

Known as the Yamuna Pushta or 'Yamuna embankment', the illegal settlement in the north-east of the city normally runs for miles on the flood plains on either side of the great river. Now, the plains themselves are completely flooded. A tide of humanity has already engulfed the highway as tens of thousands of slum dwellers abandon their shanty towns along the river and seek shelter.

The communities make camp on the highway with whatever belongings remain, only feet from Delhi's other raging torrent: the traffic. A tiny infant sleeps on hard concrete, a yard or two from the road, wrapped in a blanket. A teenage girl meticulously combs her long, dark hair under the plastic sheeting of her home. Another texts on her mobile phone while filling a canister with drinking water from a water truck.

Global megatrends at the side of the road

When we think of globalisation we rarely think of slums but the people of Yamuna Pushta are part of a global phenomenon. Billions of people are congregating in our cities and urban areas, leaving the land and rural settings behind. For the first time in history more than 50 % of the world's population lives in urban areas. By 2050, about 70 % of us are likely to be urban dwellers, compared with less than 30 % in 1950 (UNDESA, 2010).

Cities are also reaching historically unprecedented sizes. The rising number of megacities across the globe puts enormous strains on their natural resource support systems. The even faster growth in small and medium-sized cities could eventually be even more important from an environmental perspective.

Cities concentrate investment and employment opportunities, promoting economic growth and increased productivity. They provide higher-income jobs, as well as greater access to goods, services and facilities, and improved health, literacy and quality of life. These opportunities tempt rural residents to search for a better life and higher income in urban areas.

However, in the absence of strong governance, rapid urban growth can cause major environmental challenges by increasing both consumption and urban poverty.

UN-Habitat statistics suggest that there are 1.1 billion people living in urban slums around the world. With population continuing to rise, more and more people are moving to urban areas around the world and the trend is set to continue.

While the majority of the population suffering severe deprivation still lives in rural areas, there is a large and growing proportion in urban areas too, though just how many is believed to be greatly underestimated in official statistics. Importantly, the proportion of the urban poor is rising faster in many developing countries than the overall rate of urban population growth.

Designing the future

Cities are ecosystems: they are open and dynamic systems that consume, transform and release materials and energy; they develop and adapt; they are shaped by humans and interact with other ecosystems. They must therefore be managed like any other type of ecosystem.

Through rethinking urban design, architecture, transport and planning, we can put our cities and urban landscapes at the forefront of climate change mitigation (e.g. sustainable transport, clean energy and low consumption) and adaptation (e.g. floating houses, vertical gardens). Furthermore, better urban planning will improve quality of life across the board by designing quiet, safe, clean and green urban space. It also creates new employment opportunities by stimulating the market for new technologies and green architecture.

Due to their concentration of people and activities, cities matter. Their problems cannot be solved at the local level alone. Better policy integration and new governance are needed, involving closer partnership and coordination at the local, national and regional levels. Indeed, effective, joined-up policy is crucial in the interconnected world we live in.


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