Two thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, and cities are having to grow rapidly to cope with this influx.
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But who are these people, and just what do they want from city planners and builders?
Today, 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66% by 2050. United Nations projections show that urbanisation combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5bn people to urban populations by 2050, with close to 90% of the increase concentrated in Asia and Africa.
Putting that into context, in 2016 there were 512 cities with at least 1M inhabitants globally. By 2030, a projected 662 cities will have at least 1M residents. Cities with more than 10M inhabitants are often termed “megacities”. In 2016, there were 31 such megacities globally – and this is expected to rise to 41 by 2030.
Pressure to show leadership
It means there is pressure on city authorities and developers to show the necessary leadership that will ensure that these cities meet the needs of their growing populations.
Amanda Clack, for one, is excited by the challenge. Clack is executive director at developer CBRE and immediate past president for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Her themes as president were focused on the inter-relationship of infrastructure, cities and people.
“I’m really passionate about cities,” she says. “Why? They are our most enduring social structures.
“But we need really strong leadership to drive the agenda,” she sad in a speech from the main stage at international property fair Mipim in Cannes, an event attended by 26,000 developers and city leaders from over 100 countries.
“By 2050, 66% of the world’s population will live in cities. There will be 13 or 14 new mega-cities built in China alone. You are going to have cities like Shanghai taking on Australia. Jing-Jin-Ji is going to be the world’s first mega-city of 100M,” she states. “Just imagine living in a city of that scale.”
There are, of course, lots of types of cities.
They are all growing at different rates due to different political, economic and social drivers. Their leaders all have different views on what they want to be. And there are all kinds of measures available to tell you which are doing it best.
As JLL global research lead Rosemary Feenan says: “In this world of measurement, cities have nowhere to hide.” Feenan explains that there are now more than 300 indices used by investors.
JLL itself has one, breaking cities worldwide into 10 distinct groups, with the lead group called the Big 7: London, New York, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Seoul. And they are powerful.
“The Big 7 take 25% of all direct real estate investment worldwide,” she says. “That says something about what the property market thinks of global powerhouses.”
But, according to JLL, the next group down, The Contenders, are vying to take over. These are cities like San Francisco, Amsterdam, Los Angeles, Washington DC and Beijing. “This is the fastest growing cluster and claims 14% of direct investment,” she notes. “We may see in the next 10 years a very different set of cities at the top.”
So what might change the list? Or, as Feenan poses it: “How do cities change?”
There are common factors. Most of them want their citizens to be safe. Most want their cities to be resilient. Most of them want them to be clean. What is indisputable is that they are all going to be increasingly inhabited by people – so called millennnials – who are currently young.
Clack cites research by Berlin-based apartment search engine Nestpick. It found that millennials want four things: essentials like a home, food and transport; good businesses to work for; openness; and recreation – places to come together.
Adora Svitak is an internationally acclaimed speaker and advocate for causes including literacy, youth empowerment and feminism. And, as a fourth-year undergraduate student at UC Berkeley in California, she is a millennial that wants her generation to be heard. Her 2010 TED talk “What Adults Can Learn From Kids” was watched by 4M worldwide. Since then she has delivered speeches to the United Nations, and others, and was picked to deliver the Mipim keynote speech to give a millennial perspective on future cities.
Jing-Jin-Ji is going to be the world’s first mega-city of 100M. Just imagine living in a city of that scale
Her message is fundamentally simple and logical; that those planning the cities and urban environments of the future must consider the views of the many rather than the few, something that she feels is not currently happening.
“I want to make the case for adopting new eyes and ears so that we may better see and hear all types of people. Building that kind of vision requires tuning into the attitudes of youth,” she says.
And she believes today’s youth is being let down by current approaches.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, and echoing the Nestpik research, housing affordability tops her priority list.
“Affordability is key to appealing to millennials,” she says. “Housing needs to be accessible to the quintessential starving artist.”
Unaffordability is causing problems
She referenced an Oakland artists collective where artists, priced out of the property market were living in an abandoned warehouse. It was generally perceived as a cool place to hang out and party, until 36 people died in a fire during a concert because it lacked fire safety systems.
She says she is hugely frustrated at attempts to “aestheticise” unaffordable housing and transport.
She cites the #vanlife hashtag, for people who have chosen to live in camper vans. It has had nearly 3M mentions on Instagram, few them critical.
“These are images of conventionally attractive, affluent, white, middle class people taken on high quality cameras. These are not images of the black, disadvantaged worker who lives in a Walmart carpark and who dies and nobody notices.
“I am frustrated by a non-critical narrative of things like biking to work because the alternatives are unaffordable.
“We all talk about designing for millennials, but when we do that we are thinking of people who get on Google buses or put on a suit and go and work on Wall Street,” she continues. “But that’s not most of us.
“I worry that we only see the young people we want to see. Designing for only a small sliver of the educated millennial population can provoke a backlash from the rest of the community,” she says.
She also brings up the issue of loneliness.
“The loneliness associated with urban development can be catastrophic,” she stresses, noting that the UK has just appointed a minister for loneliness. “That’s good,” she states. “Young people are just as affected by this as older people are.
Curse of convenience
“Modern life is plagued by the curse of convenience. We don’t need to communicate with anyone. In the past societies were united by organised religion, but that is not so likely in my generation.
“In thinking about designing for young people I want to point out the importance of social interaction,” she says.
“What our world needs right now is a lot more getting to know our neighbours so the new rule is to build accessible spaces that encourage getting to know each other from cradle to the grave,” she says.
And that means all people: not just the advantaged few: “We should bring people of all backgrounds emotionally closer too,” she says.
She likes maker spaces, where tinkerers gather to work on projects with shared equipment, for example in São Paolo. “These are public goods that bring new value for cities,” she says.
“We are looking increasingly for better alternatives to the social spaces of our predecessors,” she emphasises, “it’s about creating spaces that enhance creativity.
“Public parks are great examples of these spaces,” she notes.
Public engagement in cities
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) exists to promote policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world. Svitak’s views chime with OECD project manager Debra Mountford’s own agenda: “What makes a successful city is a city that brings together public engagement,” she says.
“Cities have always been unequal places. The poor have always lived in the poorest houses. But really now we need to start thinking: who is the city for? And how do we make it more affordable?”
A further, overarching agenda is climate change. This is an issue that definitely chimes with the youth.
James Alexander is director of the City Finance Programme at the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. The C40 is a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. Alexander leads C40’s work supporting global megacities to overcome the barriers to financing climate action.
“We are entering the century of cities. Urbanisation is enormous. All the population growth, which is huge, will be in urban areas. But what should they be like? Like they are now, with sprawl and pollution?” he asks. “No,” he asserts.
“Climate change is going to be the other mega-trend,” he tells Mipim. “Think about the Paris agreement and the core aspiration of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C, primarily by reducing dependence on carbon.
Carbon sharing cities
“The C40 is just under 100 cities. Those cities will use up their share of carbon on a business as usual basis, by 2025. Business as usual is not only not an option, but massively not an option,” he asserts.
And he puts the emphasis firmly on those responsible for building design.
“It can’t be down to the mayors,” he says. “Mayors don’t build cities.
“We need leadership to come from many angles. But particularly from those building them, and for them to ensure all buildings are net-zero emission by 2030,” he challenges.
Svitak stresses that it is as much a question of moral leadership as anything else.
“My peers are among the most socially conscious people I know,” she states, giving the example of recent youth protests in the US, following the Florida school shootings.