The Urbanization Paradox

Over the course of the last 200 years, the increase in average standard of living has largely mirrored increased urbanization. In 1800, just 10 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. The UN believes that this number will reach 55 percent in 2015. According to The Economist, 64.1 percent of the developing world, and and 85.9 percent of the developed world will live in urban centers by 2050.

Extreme poverty rates have declined precipitously over the last 30 years, and increased urbanization in developed countries suggests that this trend is likely to continue. However, while urbanization might spell economic progress in developing countries, it also poses environmental and humanitarian challenges.

Urban centers draw heavily on natural resources. The population density of urban environments brings challenges in terms of water availability, waste disposal and energy consumption. In cities like Nairobi, unplanned urban development has forced many into squalor – 60 percent of Nairobi’s urban population has been squeezed into five percent of the city’s total land mass.

What’s more, countless studies have noted that urbanization can exacerbate climate change’s negative impact on stream ecosystems. Urbanization can also exacerbate the risks posed by environmental hazards. Coastal cities are especially vulnerable to flash flooding – a risk that is rising along with the sea level.

Whether the environmental and humanitarian challenges of urbanization are met will depend largely on the responsiveness of local governments in meeting the individual needs of their communities. It will be up to local policy makers to maximize the benefits of urbanization while limiting the depths of its pitfalls. In doing so, local governments will need to draw on the ingenuity of urban planners, who face a diverse array of challenges in protecting their communities from environmental hazards and resource scarcity.

Like sustainable development models, sustainable urban planning models resist definitive archetypes, as renowned British architect David Adjaye has noted. “It has become clear that modern singularity must be refashioned into nuanced dialogues between geography, technology and culture,” said Adjaye. Urban planners will be called upon to architect fine-spun solutions, tailor-made for the communities that they serve.

However, it could be difficult for governments to resist the temptation of the short-term economic dividends of rapid, albeit unsustainable, urban growth. In addition, many developing countries may lack the financial resources and scientific expertise necessary to urbanize in and environmentally and humanitarianly sound way. Accordingly, it is essential that the U.S. government do its best to provide technical and financial support to urbanizing nations.

Parker Carroll

Sources: EPA, Huffington Post 1, Huffington Post 2, IRIN, New Security Beat
Photo: Flickr