In the second or two it takes you to read this sentence, the world’s urban population will increase by two to four people. Within a week, 1.3 million people—some newborns, others migrants—will join the ranks of the world’s urban citizens. Many of them will settle in haphazard informal settlements at the edges of cities in developing countries. Meanwhile, other vacant plots of land at the boundaries of the world’s urban spaces will be taken up by businesses and investors looking to turn a profit.
Though these developments take place far from the view of many urban dwellers, urban thinkers at the London School of Economics’ (LSE) 13th annual Urban Age Conference held in Delhi last week argued that it is precisely the governance of these peripheries that will decide the world’s urban future, including our ability to confront climate change and the nature of democracy.
“We have an incredible window over the next ten to twenty years to shape the built environment, a period of unprecedented urban development,” said Karen Seto, one of the coordinating lead authors for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) scientific assessment of the relationship between climate change and human settlements.
While the level of urban population growth is mind-boggling—2.5 to 3 billion more people are projected to live in cities by 2050 than do today—cities are growing up and out at an even faster rate. “Expansion of urban areas is on average twice as fast as urban population growth, and the expected increase in urban land cover during the first three decades of the 21st century will be greater than the cumulative urban expansion in all of human history,” reports the IPCC.
Sustainability and the urban question
“Spatial planning and infrastructure planning are among the few areas where we can proactively design futures,” explained Philipp Rode, executive director of LSE Cities and Urban Age. He showed the audience a slide with maps of the transit systems in Berlin and Atlanta to illustrate his point. Both cities have relatively similar population and wealth levels, but Atlanta has far more sprawl. Limited public transportation has locked people into essentially one option for transport: the car. Less than 10% of people in Atlanta use public transport, a bicycle or their feet to get around. In contrast, almost 70% of people do in Berlin, where the network of urban transport covers most of the city, said Rode.
In this vein, the IPCC’s latest report notes that greenhouse gas emissions are closely linked to density, connectivity, accessibility and mixed land use. Places that are walkable and well-connected by public transport tend to be more accessible and inclusive. High density areas in which land is used for a variety of purposes help to lessen the energy each resident spends on commuting from their home to the supermarket, the office or other places they might need to be.
In fact, the construction of cities alone, regardless of what people do inside of them, could push us over the two degree rise in global temperature that scientists say is the threshold for dangerous climate change, said Seto.
In the face of rapid urbanisation, thoughtful urban planning could hold the key to containing climate change. “There are thousands of cities that have undertaken climate mitigation strategies, but very few actually focus on urban land use, which is in many ways the low hanging fruit and the gorilla, or the opportunity, in the room,” Seto explained.
Rethinking urban governance
At the same time, many cities don’t have full control over decisions that affect their ability to mitigate climate change. In many cases, municipalities lack authority over the entire metropolitan area that shapes the local urban system. In Rio de Janeiro, half of the Rio metropolitan area’s population of 12.7 million falls out of the administrative boundaries of the city. In other places, including many Indian cities, municipal governments aren’t elected, weakening their connection to the needs and priorities of urban denizens. To make matters worse, local governments often lack financial resources or executive powers to make important decisions about city life and urban services, such as water, electricity, public transport or highways—and higher levels of government are wary about passing on the control.
If cities are to effectively govern the current wave of urbanisation, they must be empowered to do so. Yet as cities expand, so does the reach of what Neil Brenner calls “extended urbanisation”—the linkages between rural and urban areas that make it difficult to draw a clear line between the two. As cities grow, their impact on the environment and their appetite for migrant workers, food, water, land and other resources from rural areas rises. With the boundaries between the urban and the rural increasingly blurred in the face of wide-reaching challenges, such as mitigating climate change and eradicating extreme poverty, it’s unclear where the responsibilities of national, state and city governments should begin and end. In spite of the overlap, there’s a strong argument for giving more governing powers to cities and creating political institutions that oversee entire metropolitan regions.
Perhaps the best case for empowering cities comes from the places where it hasn’t happened. Thomas Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association in New York explained that responsibilities for public services in the New York metropolitan region are fragmented between various agencies. “We have about 22 million people living in one region with several thousand different units of government,” he explained. Consequently, even though transit ridership is higher than it’s been in decades, critical infrastructure that carries hundreds of thousands each day isn’t being effectively improved or expanded to keep pace with the needs of the city or public demand, Wright said.
Democracy in urban space
A point to which the conference returned time and time again was that planning decisions are essentially political decisions. The recent history of public transport in Delhi is a case in point. Successive governments have been supportive of Delhi’s metro system, which serves about 12% of the city’s population each day, and continue to plan its expansion. In contrast the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system has not expanded beyond 5.8 kilometres, though it was initially planned for 19. Even as buses are the most-used form of urban transport by Delhiites and more affordable than the metro, which has a higher fare and a richer ridership, successive governments have failed to support expansion of the BRT.
According to Geeta Tiwari, professor of transport planning at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, this has to do, at least in part, with the politics of power and class. “Giving exclusive space to buses competes with car users,” she said. In mid-2007, when the first BRT line was under construction, the mainstream English-language media lambasted the project for leaving only two lanes available for cars. In one edition of Times of India, rapid buses were critiqued for “flying on the road” as commuters were “struck in a traffic jam on the BRT corridor,” Tiwari recalled.
Former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who is credited with transforming Bogota into a more livable city by expanding the city’s parks and installing a bus rapid transit system, among other initiatives, also said had to contend with various interest groups, especially powerful, wealthy Bogotans, as he worked to reform his city’s streets.
“One of the most important ideological issues of our time in cities is how to distribute the most valuable resource a city has, which is roadspace,” he said. “How do we distribute roadspace between pedestrians, bicyclists, public transport and cars? This is not a matter for a transport engineer. This is a political decision.”
When municipalities choose to spend on highways but fail to build sidewalks or invest in public transportation, they favor citizens with cars and make it harder for their residents to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. When governments extend public services to informal settlements or increase the stock of affordable housing, they recognise the needs of migrants and the poor. And when cities fail to provide adequate security or reliable public services, they may give rise to gated communities that enhance divisions between the haves and have-nots.
The call for an urban agenda
The pace of urban change makes the impact of such decisions especially acute. Climate change adaption, the quality of democratic government and, with each passing week, the lives of 1.3 million more urbanites are on the line. While debates at the Urban Age Conference were filled with buzzwords such as “sustainability”, “inclusivity”, “accessibility” and “resilience”, there wasn’t a clear consensus on how to make these things a reality. What’s clear is that the planning decisions based on any of these ideals must be made with consideration for their political implications.
Joan Clos, executive director of UN-Habitat, called for a new paradigm of urban planning at the conference, but he didn’t lay out a way to accomplish this vision or engage the audience at Urban Age in a serious discussion about Habitat III—a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the course of international urbanisation. The conference, which will be convened by UN-Habitat in 2016, is meant to set the agenda for international cooperation on urban issues over the next twenty years. In failing to draw the limelight towards it, Clos missed out on an opportunity to have an open debate about the agenda’s political priorities with some of the world’s leading urban thinkers and policy makers, including prominent Indian bureaucrats and the mayor of Lagos, one of the world’s largest megacities.
The international community has an opportunity to mould a more sustainable, just and equitable society through the thoughtful use of urban space. It’s time for global leaders to seize it.