Thought of the week: Is city-life sustainable?

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(Slum in Xiamen, China against the skyscrapers of the CBD)

 

The future of life is in the cities. 54% of people live in cities worldwide, by 2050 that’s expected to climb to 66% (UN Urbanisation). The UN Habitat III conference took place this week, and allowed development leaders to reiterate the importance of building and planning sustainable and safe cities, if the urban lifestyle is to be a viable one. In many rapidly expanding cities in the Global South (E.g. New Delhi and Sao Paolo), urban areas overflow into slums, where disease is rife, and water and electricity shortages are common. The long term effect of over-urbanisation on the surrounding environment can be seen with the case of Las Vegas, which has drained the surrounding land of 90% of its water in order to quench Vegas’ thirst. This dependence on a fragile balance of resources means that the city’s population is particularly vulnerable to drought, not only affecting people’s quality of life, but the ability of the surrounding environment to cope with the strain of feeding the city.

As the number of megacities around the world booms, we talk about the need for expanding resource infrastructure and population capacity in order to copy with the influx of migrants. “Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of the 21st century. Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda” – John Wilmoth, Director of UN DESA’s Population Division.

Particularly in the Global South, urban immigrants who populate the sprawling slums accept a lower quality of life and often operate outside the system, performing small cash-in-hand tasks at minimal cost. Alleviating this population from poverty, as building sustainable cities would do, would empower it to expect higher wages and a higher quality of life, at a cost to the urban economic system; which as it stands, they add more to than they subtract from.  In theory, we are committed to building the sustainable urbanised future that our generation craves. But in practice, is the GDP-driven system too blind sighted by the cheap labour and increased profits to act to prevent the environmental impacts of overpopulation?

 

Useful links and references:

UN Habitat III

Sustainable Development Commission

 

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