Cities, Future of

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The twenty-first century will be the first urban century, as the world largely completes its "urban transition." With the proportion of the world's population living in urban areas projected to pass the 50 percent mark in 2007, cities are increasingly the arena for the most important developments affecting people's lives, such as globalization, economic transformation, cultural diversification, ecological change, political movements, and even warfare. As the rural-to-urban shift continues, attention has been switching from simple measures of urbanization toward the redistribution of population among different sizes and types of urban settlement, the physical and social restructuring of individual cities and their wider urban regions, the quality of life offered by these places, and the governance issues raised by these changes, not least the challenge of ensuring their sustainability and reducing their vulnerability.

Distribution of Urban Population by City Size

According to the United Nations, 39.5 percent of the world's urban population were living in agglomerations of at least 1 million residents in the year 2000. According to projections, this proportion is expected to grow, at least in the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century, reaching 43 percent by 2015. The share of the urban population accounted for by "megacities" of at least 10 million residents more than doubled between 1975 and 2000, but even then stood at less than 1 in 10 and is projected to increase only marginally by 2015. At the other end of the scale, urban settlements with under 500,000 inhabitants were home to half of the world's urban people in 2000, indicating that the median city size of urban areas stood at 500,000. Further details are provided in Table 1.

The distribution of urban populations by city size varies among world regions. The share accounted for by cities of at least 10 million residents in the Less Developed Regions (LDRs) had already over-taken that in the More Developed Regions (MDRs) by 2000 (Table 1). At 15.1 percent, it was then highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, but through to 2015 it is expected to fall in all major regions except Asia. Meanwhile, Europe is distinctive in its large share of urban residents living in agglomerations of under 500,000 inhabitants, but is similar to North America in that the share is expected to grow. Great care, however, is needed in interpreting these figures, especially where planning controls have restricted the continuous built-up area of a settlement but not its functional reach.

The Largest Urban Agglomerations

The rise in the number of agglomerations with at least 5 million inhabitants was one of the major demographic trends of the late twentieth century and is continuing in the twenty-first. Rising from a mere eight in 1950 to 22 in 1975, the number reached 41 in 2000 and is expected to grow to 59 by 2015, according to the United Nations. Moreover, this growth has become almost entirely a phenomenon of the LDRs. In 1950 LDRs accounted for only two of the eight, but by 2015 their tally will have risen to 48, including all but one of the extra 18 expected to be added to this roster between 2000 and 2015.

Many of these large agglomerations are growing rapidly, but the population of some has stabilized, at least within their defined boundaries (Table 2). Bombay (Mumbai), Lagos, and Dhaka are expected to experience spectacular growth, putting them in a position to pass Tokyo in size soon after 2015. On current trends Tokyo is expected to have the same number of residents in 2015 as in 2000, while New York, fifth in 2000, is expected to slip to eighth in the list by 2015. Even some LDR agglomerations that previously grew rapidly are now gaining at more modest rates, including São Paulo, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires. The numbers living in agglomerations of 5 million people or over are expected to increase by 205 million between 2000 and 2015, but little more than half of this increase is due to population growth in the cities in this category in 2000; the rest will be due to additional cities entering the category.

Counterurbanization and Reurbanization

The slowing growth rate of some of the largest urban agglomerations, along with the expected decrease in the share of the urban populations living in megacities, can be related to the phenomenon of counterurbanization. The term itself is normally restricted to the shift in population distribution down the city-size hierarchy, though it can also refer to above-average population growth in rural, or non-metropolitan, areas. Population deconcentration away from large-city regions to smaller ones, or at least a slowing of the rate of metropolitan concentration, was observed quite widely across the developed


world in the 1970s. This led to suggestions that a new postindustrial pattern of human settlement was emerging, based principally on more footloose forms of economic activity and aided by improvements in transportation and communications.

A subsequent slowdown in population deconcentration, allied with signs of renewed large-city growth in some MDR countries, has prompted a lively debate about the validity of this interpretation. One suggestion is that all cities go through cycles of development that progress from strong core growth through internal decentralization to a stage when the city as a whole loses out to newer settlements before undergoing a period of reurbanization, as its obsolescent economy and infrastructure are rejuvenated in a new wave of investment. Most cases of renewed large-city growth in the MDRs can be linked to economic restructuring, especially employment increases in service sector activities such as finance, media, government, research, and higher education,


and, often, to acceleration in international immigration. Sociodemographic factors have also played a part. A period of high fertility and family building occurring between the 1950s and the 1970s was followed by one with lower fertility, greater frequency of divorce and separation, and the rapid growth of non-family households with a decreased preference for suburban and small-town lifestyles.

The Changing Internal Form of Cities

The traditional, preindustrial form of an urban settlement is one with a central meeting place for transactional activities such as commerce, government, and worship, surrounded by housing, workshops, and neighborhood services and with the wealthiest, most influential inhabitants living closest to the center. Industrial cities also tended to grow around a single center, though in this case the focus was the zone of factories that were the reason for their growth, and it was the low-paid, including recent inmigrants, that lived closest to the center amid the factory-generated pollution and squalor. Better-off people, with more secure jobs, higher incomes, and shorter working hours, tended to move to lower-density areas toward the edge of these cities–a process that accelerated with improvements in passenger transport, especially the development of the automobile. Suburbs–so named because these areas were situated beyond the main urban core and lacked employment opportunities and urban facilities such as high-level services–dominated the physical growth of cities through most of the twentieth century.

The twenty-first-century city looks as if it will be very different from the inherited monocentric city with its surrounding suburbs. Suburbs have altered in character as manufacturing has been relocated there to take advantage of larger sites and better access to intercity highways and as shopping and office centers have grown up close to the wealthier residents and to mothers wanting to work while raising their families. Cities that are essentially products of the automobile age, of which Los Angeles remains the classic example, developed a more polycentric urban form from the outset. Similarly, older established cities have seen the emergence of "edge cities" and similar out-of-town retail/office complexes that have drawn trade and jobs from their main cores and in some cases threatened to eclipse them. At the same time, the industrial city's distinction between wealthier suburbs and poorer central city has been breaking down as lower-income families have found homes in more peripheral locations through government-subsidized housing schemes and illegal squatter settlements. Low-income migrants arriving in cities are less likely than in the past to settle in their core, now tending to be spread more evenly across the whole metropolitan area.

There remains, however, intense speculation over the future form of cities. At one extreme is the possibility of a return to the form of the preindustrial city, with an acceleration of the back-to-the-city movement of younger professional people and also perhaps of the wealthier elderly wishing to participate in a resurgence of cultural activities there. In direct contrast is the idea that, with further improvements in transport and telecommunications, exurban development will become the norm, incorporating the further growth of edge cities but leading on to an even more dispersed pattern of settlement than traditional urban sprawl. Melvin Webber's "nonplace urban realm" or what Edward Soja calls the "exopolis" would be characterized by lack of structure and absence of cores, where the only type of center that individuals would be able to experience is their own home. Possibly both these patterns will be represented in some parts of some countries, but the norm is more likely to be some amalgam comprising an extensive urban field with a set of interlinked components that vary in terms of their functional specialization and population characteristics–like the Megalopolis as originally articulated by Jean Gottmann.

Quality of Life in Cities

The stereotypical image of cities includes congestion, high costs, worn-out infrastructure, and a generally poor quality of life, to be contrasted with notions of a "rural idyll." The large city, even before the nineteenth century, was a place to be avoided on account of its problems in dealing with human and animal waste and the attendant problems of disease, which gave rise to sudden demographic crises as well as underlying high mortality. The suburban marrying of the urban and the rural, most consciously articulated in the notion of the "garden city," has traditionally been seen to offer the best of both worlds. Moreover, by primarily involving the middle class, the middle-aged, and the dominant ethnic group, the suburban movement has reinforced the negative image of the "inner city," leaving behind those with fewer resources to support both their own households and communal services. The resultant higher levels of deprivation, morbidity, and ethnic tension, and also crime, violence, and other antisocial behavior, have only served to fuel the urban exodus.

This picture of the "urban penalty" has, however, been challenged, not just by the changing form of the city but most notably by the experience of LDRs. The introduction of modern medicine and the basic public-health infrastructure to LDRs, proceeding faster in larger urban areas than in more remote rural regions, has given rise to an "urban advantage." This has been most marked in terms of health and longevity, but has affected the quality of life more generally, aided by the availability there of greater opportunities for work and education. Urban areas have also been associated with fuller emancipation of women and declining fertility. On the other hand, the urban advantage in the LDRs is now seen as being under threat from several quarters, including the deterioration of economic conditions, reductions in government spending on urban health infrastructure, the rise of virulent communicable diseases including HIV/AIDS, and not least the continuing urban population explosion. The general vulnerability of the least developed countries to problems that include economic uncompetitiveness, social inequalities, environmental pressures, internal ethnic tension, terrorism, and international political conflict, are increasingly being focused on their cities, raising questions about the long-term sustainability of their recent gains in living standards.

Governance Issues

Political and administrative factors have always had a major influence on the growth and nature of cities and on the living standards enjoyed by their residents, even if more immediate events led to the wholesale collapse of cities in earlier civilizations. Even without the military operations that have engulfed cities in such troubled parts of the globe as the Balkans, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and Afghanistan, the quality of governance can make a huge difference. Notable examples in the past include Singapore's drive toward "world city" status under the leadership of Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew and the salvaging of New York City's reputation and pride by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, helping it to withstand the trauma of the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001.

Even in MDRs, the future pattern of urban governance is by no means clear. Probably the most contentious issue is whether the larger urban agglomerations should be administered by a single elected body, albeit with a lower tier of local government. Where central cities are administered separately from their suburbs, it appears that greater social inequalities develop and overall metropolitan performance can suffer. Except perhaps in the smallest or most centralized countries, neither national governments nor provincial authorities, where they exist, have proven adequate to secure the required extent of internal redistribution of resources or to achieve the needed degree of inter-agency coordination for these complex urban regions. Throughout the urban system, however, issues arise concerning the level to which government should be decentralized, whether single authorities should control all aspects of governance or if tasks should be split between separate boards, and the manner in which the executive powers should be subject to democratic accountability.

Given the fragile state of affairs prevailing in many LDRs, these issues would seem to be even more crucial for their cities; and they are probably more intractable. A key problem is the sheer pace of urbanization, which renders obsolete the forms of governance that for generations had generally served well for what were largely rural territories, and makes it difficult for city boundaries to keep up with the mushrooming reality on the ground. One challenge is the unifying of urban and rural jurisdictions in order to take account of the increasingly close interaction between city cores and their hinterlands. Since these evolving metropolitan regions tend to be central to national economic prosperity, there is a strong argument that if they are to reach their full potential they should not remain under the restrictive control of local government. And the hierarchical nature of traditional governance does not fit well with the emerging structures based on networks and horizontal relationships.

See also: Residential Segregation; Suburbanization; Urbanization; World Population Growth.


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Tony Champion