Urbanisation: growing pains

With the world’s urban population set to soar by 2.5 billion by 2050, meeting the needs of growing cities is a vital development challenge of the 21st century, according to the UN

Figures from the latest UN report on urbanisation predict the global proportion of city dwellers will rise to 66 per cent – from 54 per cent today – over the same period. Population growth and accelerating rural migration could lead to a rise in slums in some of the world’s most densely populated cities.

Nearly 90 per cent of the increase in urban dwelling will be concentrated in Asia and Africa, according to forecasts released by the UN’s population division.

“Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the success of the post-2015 UN development agenda,” said John Wilmoth, director of the UN’s population division, department of economic and social affairs.

According to the UN, 37 per cent of cities’ growth to 2050 will occur in just three countries: India is projected to add 404 million urban dwellers, China 292 million and Nigeria 212 million. India’s capital, New Delhi, is already the second most populous city in the world, behind Tokyo.

“By 2050 one out of every three people on the planet will be in a slum”

This shift to urban areas will put cities under strain to provide housing, infrastructure, transportation, energy and employment, said the UN’s biennial World Urbanization Prospects report.

The UN’s predictions are a stark warning for cities already under pressure. Currently, 1 billion people globally live in slums – informal urban settlements whose populations are often shut out of basic services such as healthcare and education. The stigma attached to slum residents harms their ability to tap fully into a city’s economic opportunities.

“That 1 billion will reach 3 billion by 2050,” said Janice Perlman, founder of the Mega-Cities Project, speaking to Philanthropy Age at a Slum Summit in Dubai. “[By 2050] one out of every three people on the planet will be in a slum.”

Despite the threat of slum-dwelling, rapid urbanisation is growing apace globally: some 200,000 people a day move from rural to urban areas worldwide, or the equivalent of eight New York cities a year. “There is no magic bullet. It’s much easier to put out a bunch of sprayed mosquito netting and say you’ve reached hundreds of thousands of people,” noted Perlman. “The problems of inequality and poverty are structural problems.”