Population growth: The biggest challenge of cities

October 31, 2020

Margarita Vaca


Cities are synonymous of economic growth, employment, social mobilization, technological advances and innovations, among other positive factors that are reflected in the fact that more than 80% of the world’s gross domestic product is produced in the cities (World Bank, 2020). However, they are also the reflection of negative externalities as a result of accelerated urbanization such as inequality, poverty, sectorized development, among others, which are transformed into social exclusion, insecurity, pollution (70% of carbon emissions are produced in cities), which implies significant challenges for the urban agenda in order to achieve more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities that are aligned with the targets outlined in the Sustainable Development Goal 11.

In 2019, more than half of the world’s population lived in cities (55.7%), that is, 4.274 million people (World Bank, 2019). By 2030, this percentage is projected to increase to 60%. In 2018, the majority of the population (26.5%) lived in cities with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants and it is projected that by 2030 one in three people will live in cities with these characteristics. On the other hand, it is estimated that “megacities”, a city with more than 10 million inhabitants, will increase from 33 to 43 (2018 to 2030). In 2018, the population in these cities was equal to 6.9% of the world population (United Nations, 2018).

Clearly, the panorama shown above exposes different challenges about planning and territorial ordering of cities to guarantee that all their inhabitants have equal access to basic services, in particular, housing, urban facilities and services, transport and public spaces, by increasing the environmental commitment of all stakeholders and reduce the risk of spatial segregation processes, whether due to income, ethnicity, religious beliefs or others.

Adequate housing: A fundamental right

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In 2018, 23.5% of the population lived in poor neighborhoods and informal settlements, with East and South-East Asia (370 million), Sub-Saharan Africa (238 million) and Central and South Asia (227 million) being the most populous regions in this situation (UNstats, sf). In addition, the expansion of urban land consumption exceeds population growth by up to 50% (World Bank, 2020). Rapid urbanization raises debates between the expansion of land use and the sustainability of territories by exerting pressure not only on the spatial distribution of people, but also on the supply of resources (fresh water), services such as public health, wastewater treatment and waste collection, among others. According to the World Bank (2020), cities consume two thirds of the world’s energy and produce 70% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Urban facilities and services: Social distribution of basic goods

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Urban services “constitute a mediation between their territorial and social dimensions” (ECLAC, 2000). They allow distributing the minimum conditions to develop urban activities and satisfy the collective needs of citizens through state actions. Among the urban services are citizen security, road infrastructure, funeral services, public administration services, waste collection, among others.

Together, the world’s cities produce between 7 and 10 billion tons of waste per year. At the local level, municipalities in low-income countries spend about 20% of their budget on waste management and 3% on sanitation. However, solid waste collection only covers half the population and 16% of the urban population lacks access to basic sanitation services (UN-Habitat).

Lack of proper waste management has different negative effects on both health and the environment. “Globally, a third of solid waste is thrown into the open air and only a fifth of it is recovered for recycling and composting, in addition to the fact that 80% of wastewater is discharged into rivers” (UN-Habitat ).

Transportation and accessibility: A social connector

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Mobility is an essential service in the cities. Therefore, adequate transportation systems become a tool for economic growth, social inclusion and competitiveness by acting as a connector between people and health services, education and the labor market. Millions of people use public and private transport every day, facing traffic jams and the environmental pollution that traditional cars, buses and others can generate. According to the World Bank (2014), the transport sector generates at least 20.4% of CO2 emissions.

On the other hand, transport systems can also be considered as a symbol of independence, especially for people with disabilities, who face architectural and urban barriers that hinder their integration into the labor market. In the world, one out of eight adults lives with a disability, in Latin America and the Caribbean around 13% of the population has a disability condition (IDB, 2019).

Public spaces: Beyond buildings

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Urban public spaces are places of social interaction and recreation, as well as means of subsistence for many people. Therefore, a people centered management of them should be a priority. According to the report The Hidden Wealth of Cities: Creation, Financing and Management of Public Spaces, in the world, around a third of the surface of a city is occupied by public spaces.

Public spaces can be divided into three main types: Streets and pedestrian accesses; Open and green spaces (parks, squares, waterfronts), and public facilities (libraries, community centers and markets) (UN-Habitat, 2015). Regarding streets and pedestrian accesses, the share of street vending as a percentage of total employment can vary from around 5 percent in many cities to 20 percent in some cities (UN-Habitat, 2013).

On the other hand, open and green spaces not only fulfill a landscape function, but also optimize air quality, a space for coexistence and physical activity. Physical inactivity is the fourth risk factor with regard to global mortality (6% of deaths registered worldwide), one of the main causes being poor walkability and lack of access to recreational areas (WHO , sf).

Final thoughts

Cities play a vital role in the economic growth and human development of a country. Therefore, a large number of States have worked on the development of national urban plans that respond to multiple challenges faced by the territories, including migratory processes, and create a roadmap to implement strategies that ensure the same conditions and opportunities for all citizens.

Likewise, both competent authorities and citizens must promote dialogue spaces for the formulation of public policies to avoid the expansion of segregated territories, the reduction of green spaces and environmental damage; To provide urban services for social and labor inclusion, especially in the most remote neighborhoods, and the suppression of sectorized stereotypes. And in such a way, create safe, resilient and sustainable cities in line with the Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG 11).

Adequate and timely management of cities allows to create a robust framework of action that ensures compliance with SDG 11 by working simultaneously on different fronts: From dignity housing and accessible urban services, to the promotion of open and green spaces; The preservation of the environment as well as the economic development of urban areas, mobility, security and the protection of cultural heritage, among others, without any type of discrimination. Therefore, promoting the Right to the City

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