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Humanity is at a crossroads, undergoing a major urban shift that is transforming our world. Urbanization has become an inevitable process that presents tremendous challenges, with cities growing at unprecedented rates in many nations. Nevertheless, urbanization should be seen as an opportunity to harness cities as engines of growth, and to lead a positive transformation towards sustainable development.
Urban transformation is inevitable: it will continue, for better or worse. If not critically reexamined, urbanization will continue to propagate negative trends, including: increased segregation, inequality, and environmental degradation. World Cities Day reminds us about the critical role that urbanization plays in development.
A hundred years ago, city dwellers were a minority of the global population. In the next few decades, urban dwellers will double in number, accounting for nearly three-quarters of the world’s population. This phenomenon, which began a century ago in Europe and North America, is now occurring at lightning speed in Asia and Africa, where millions of people are moving to cities. In order to keep up with current growth rates, urbanizing countries will have to build a city of one million inhabitants every week for the next forty years.
Newly burgeoning cities are witnessing the rapid expansion of informal and unplanned settlements that lack access to clean water, sanitation, and proper infrastructure. The increase in manufacturing of export goods, fueled by the cheap labor of rural migrants, has been a typical scenario in developing countries, which deepens the economic divide. For the excluded –unskilled workers and the jobless young people – urban growth is occurring without economic benefit. Attracted to the promise of the metropolis or unable to make a living on the farm, many pour into cities. Many born in urban centers have no access to education. The supply of jobs can’t keep up with the demand, which forces men, women, and children to depend on informal work to survive. Urban protests are on the rise due to the poor quality of life and rising inequalities.
Cities do offer enormous promises, with overwhelming potential for innovation and a better life. Cities can become engines of economic development and spaces of freedom, innovation, prosperity, and resilience. In order for cities and their inhabitants to thrive, a new urban paradigm is needed; one that recognizes local contexts and is founded on the respect of public and private uses of land, sound urban design, and a well-coordinated system of systems. If a city is to function properly, it must coordinate very diverse agendas related to land use, energy, water, waste, mobility, health and education, economic development, and the promotion of cultural vitality and social inclusion.
Leading urban transformation is about redefining the urban paradigm for future generations. It is about empowering people to contribute to creative solutions that can improve our shared urban future. It is about innovation and new ideas to bring about the city we need and the future we want.