The United Nations (UN) expects the world to gain 2.2 billion new urban residents by 2050, increasing mostly in Africa and Asia.
How the cities of the future are governed and developed will affect their ability to provide these growing populations with healthcare and housing – and how successfully they will adapt to the effects of climate change.
This article explains the local and global challenges future cities will face, and how cities have potential to take a leading role in driving social change.
Future cities need to be adapted, redesigned, and constructed to tackle increasingly significant challenges. Some challenges are structural so cities need to be redeveloped and built to be better adapted and resilient to a changing climate, extreme weather events such as flooding, and other environmental challenges such as air pollution and biodiversity loss.
Cities will also need to accommodate more people, as urban populations continue to grow. This means cities must continue to find ways to reduce their carbon emissions – already cities consume around 70 per cent of global emissions.
Cities have a crucial role in setting practices and policies to reduce human consumption of energy and resources, adapt to the impacts of climate change and improve people’s lives in urban areas.
Today’s cities are highly inefficient in many ways. Air conditioning cools building interiors but pumps heated air into public spaces. Concrete buildings and paved spaces absorb heat and inhibit natural drainage of rainwater.
Buildings often have a short life span, and most of them are not designed to be recycled. Streets service car traffic not people, increasing air pollution and making cycling or pedestrian travel difficult, unpleasant, or unsafe. Cities are major sources of waste and many lack adequate collection, recycling, and disposal solutions.
Technology is often perceived as the foundation for creating, ‘smart’, green, sustainable cities. New tools, such as digital twins, artificial intelligence, and internet of things may help analyze and reduce emissions from transport, buildings and other city functions. But this can only assist the fundamental behavioural shift the world requires to a more circular urban economy.
Context is also important as cities in different parts of the world will have to consider different cultural, economic, and social factors to meet the needs of their populations.
Urbanization and the future of cities
More than half the global population lives in cities but this urbanization trend differs worldwide. Across the Americas, more than 80 per cent of people live in urban areas while inhabitants of African cities make up just more than 40 per cent of the total population.
Regardless of this variation, urbanization is set to increase to two-thirds of the global population by 2050, driven mostly by sharp increases in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. For example, across ten Southeast Asia countries, it is predicted by 2050 there will be 705 million urban residents – 205 million more than in 2014, and an increase from 47 to 65 per cent.
To accommodate this growth, major cities will continue to expand but many small and medium-sized cities are also set to experience rapid growth.
How these cities are developed and constructed is incredibly important to their future – their resilience to climate change, suitability for settlement, ability to efficiently manage resources, and growth.
Building design and construction is a long process so planning and design decisions made today about the future of human settlements have long-term consequences. Making the wrong choices in planning and construction practices could lock in high carbon emissions during this crucial period of climate action while potentially creating poorer living experiences.
Alternatively, investment which supports ambitious, sustainable practices could play a significant part in limiting emissions, meeting UN climate goals, and creating the best possible living spaces for city residents.
Cities as global actors
Cities are already policy agenda setters, shaping the development of future society. As cities grow, they will continue to exert greater and greater economic and political power influencing national issues beyond their own boundaries. In the case of sustainability, cities have long been leaders in setting their own ambitious climate goals, whereas national and international goals can be more limited by complex political issues.
Oslo in Norway has committed to reduce its emissions by 95 per cent by 2030 but, at the national level, the Norway government committed only to meet this reduction target by 2050.
A similar scenario is played out around the world, putting cities at the forefront of the most ambitious climate action.
Cities are often engines of national growth and have their own power and influence at both national and international scale. They can bring about change through their economies, research and development capacities, cultural interactions, and direct impact on the environment.
Many networks exist to help cities share learnings and collaborate, such as the C40 network and the ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. New mechanisms such as the Marrakech Partnership are further enabling collaboration between governments and cities within international environmental negotiations.
More than 1,000 cities across 50 countries have committed to reach net zero by 2050 through the Cities Race to Zero initiative, some in the absence of an equivalent national target.