Come 2050, Half of the World Will Live in Slums

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 6/22/2011 12:01:00 AM
Having published in a geography journal sometime ago, I take a natural interest in urban studies as a field of study. To be honest, I cannot determine what distinguishes a social science work from one in human geography. Being ever so pedantic, I like pointing out that social science research is inescapably grounded in spatial coordinates, hence the near-automaticity of it being "geographic."

That qualifier aside, urban studies should be of great interest to practically everyone interested in the social sciences. Sometime in 2008, more than half of the world's population lived in urban areas for the first time in human history. This shift necessitates thinking about how to make urban environs more liveable given that more and more persons now choose to live in closer proximity to one another. Civil engineering and urban planning are among the many applied sciences gaining practical interest in solving challenges facing urban dwellers. Not that they are particularly unique and now constitute a majority of the world's population as the demographic transition continues apace or arguably even accelerates.

While this ongoing shift to city life provides many with newfound opportunities, urban blight remains a particular concern. A few days ago, another research centre here, LSE Cities, launched its latest photo essay / statistical compilation entitled Living in the Endless City. (The previous volume was simply entitled Endless City.) Among other factoids like the one in the title, cities constitute 2% of the Earth's surface area but hold 53% of its population. An ever-worsening byproduct of this movement towards massive cities is the expansion of slums. Often lacking access to water, electricity, sanitation and other things we take for granted, they pose challenges to any urban planner. In the past, they used to be viewed entirely negatively, but more recent research now considers them in different ways. Though significant problems obviously remain, they offer some uniquely creative solutions to unavoidable problems alike space utilization and have often bred entrepreneurial activity.

Unfortunately perhaps, Living in the Endless City paints a rather more pessimistic view of what's to come that borders on the Malthusian. Why do people choose to live in conditions of increasingly shared misery exemplified by megacities? Although previous megalopolises were already impressive conurbations, the future portends--you guessed it--the endless city:
Fifty per cent of the world's population currently live in cities with 33 per cent of city dwellers currently living in slums. By 2050, 75 per cent will live in cities with half the world's population will be living in slums...

Cities and their designs matter. With half of the seven billion people on earth living in cities, a substantial portion of global GDP will be invested in energy and resources to accommodate new city dwellers over the next decades. The cities of the 21st century will see new waves of urban construction, and the shape of our cities will have profound impacts on the ecological balance of the planet, and on the human conditions of people growing up and growing old in cities.

Living in the Endless Cities sets out to address pressing issues, such as why are so many cities continuing to grow? What is the complex relationship between urban form and city life? How can we intervene at all levels to bring about positive change? Has the model for the western city become redundant in the face of globalisation?

The investigations of the Urban Age Project have found that cities are becoming more spatially fragmented, more socially divisive and more environmentally destructive. These are the challenges and threats faced by the next generation of urban leaders who are tasked with steering their cities through what will be complex and difficult times. But the narratives also suggest that cities are uniquely placed to harness their human and environmental potential, guiding urban growth towards greater social and environmental equity. This will be the main task for the mayors, governors and city leaders of the emerging cities in the future.
The future is still up in the air. As if global governance did not have enough challenges yet, add the milieu of urban sprawl on a previously unimaginable scale to everything else. From American-style gated communities to a gated planet (inequality); city dwellers living in close proximity who are virtual strangers to a world of strangers (social division); and infrequent municipal trash collection to planetary heaps of waste (pollution): cities will be the locations where the global human drama will unfold in the coming decades, for better or worse.