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The urban living challenge is the greatest on earth

“This time of global crises is also a time for global solutions. Opportunities must be embraced. They could be life changing”

In its assessment of the “state of the world’s cities” last year, UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency for human settlement, highlighted a growing global urban living crisis.

At the heart of the problem is the constant rise in global population. Having already breached the 6bn mark, predictions are that within the next 50 years this already scary figure could rise to 9bn - and possibly may even climb further to beyond 10bn.

Yet with this extraordinary growth we have also seen a huge and highly significant increase in urbanisation as populations migrate towards the actual or perceived greater economic prosperity of cities.

UN-Habitat warned, in graphic terms, that world governments must rapidly start to develop “a new type of city - the city of the 21st century” if they are to cope effectively with this potentially ruinous societal trend.

The future must, it said, be about people-centred cities. Cities which are able to manage population growth and boost prosperity and well-being of inhabitants through sustainable infrastructure and, as a result, narrow the gap between the rich and poor.

The so-called global urban age presents a big challenge - a challenge that, as this week’s special focus on future cities highlights - requires big solutions from politicians, planners and engineers as they prepare the infrastructure for the future.

Whereas in 1900 just 15% of the population lived in cities, by the 1950s it had reached 30%. Now it stands at around 50% - over 3bn people. It is estimated that in 50 years’ time this figure could perhaps have reached 70%of the population with perhaps 7bn people living in cities.

The challenge for infrastructure designers is huge across the developed and developing world as they manage this future scenario. It is a vital task as high-density, efficient living represents perhaps the globe’s only realistic chance to cope with the strain on resources and space that population growth brings.

So for engineers this must rate as one of the profession’s greatest opportunities. The solutions must be well planned, well prepared and based on the learning of the past. But the solutions must also encompass multiple disciplines, technologies and skills.

Given that it can take up to 30 years for the infrastructure of cities to properly mature, it is important that steps to meet this challenge start now. But they must also be the right steps.

Decent modern infrastructure must be at the heart of these new “21st century people centred” cities. The solutions must be built around socially, environmentally and economically sustainable lives.

Across all sectors of urban design we have an opportunity to redefine thinking. That means recognising that this time of global crises is also a time for global solutions.

These opportunities must be embraced. They could be life changing.

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