Johnny Ellsworth | May 29, 2019
Scientists predict that six out of ten people will live in cities by the year 2030. As urban areas become more and more enticing to live in, and rural areas become increasingly deprived, people will (and have begun to) migrate to cities. Thus, these urban centers must be prepared. A lot of this preparation lies in how cities are planned structurally. For example, the structure of New York City is much different than the structure of Mumbai. If you go onto Google Maps and look up the two cities, you’ll see what I mean. New York is methodically planned out, with a net of perpendicular lines for roads which create blocks for residential, commercial, and industrial use. Mumbai, on the other hand, is a disarray of squiggly lines (resemblant of a plate of spaghetti) with seemingly no logic to them. The differences between Mumbai and New York City are numerous, but the one most clearly seen on a map is their structure.
The placement of roads, of commercial, industrial, and residential sectors, and of power and water plants is vitally important to the health and growth of a city. This meticulous planning and preparation of cities has a name: sustainable urbanization.
This is a global issue because most cities in the world should improve their planning and infrastructure, and many countries’ economies are dependant on others. If a large city in an influential country, such as China or the United States, fell victim to economic instability due to rapid urbanization, global repercussions could ensue. Similarly, if a developing country exports less due to a struggling economy, it would influence developed countries.
This isn’t simply an economic issue, but a humanitarian one too. Homelessness is already a huge problem in our world, partly because cities are not being planned correctly. Think of it like this: if a city incorporated poorly placed roads that are constantly clogged, how would people get from place A to B? If there’s an outdated water plant, then how will people living around it get clean, safe water? If a power plant is literally miles away from the people who need power, how expensive will power be?
It has been shown that when cities are not urbanized sustainably, it increases a city’s chances of impoverishment. There are a slew of cities that have immense problems directly pertaining to poor city planning. In Port Moresby, a Papua New Guinean city, people cannot get real housing because of how expensive it is. People in poverty are left on the streets, creating informal structures and a growing slum. This means the escalation of crime rates and unemployment. If urban planners are not thoughtful, it can be detrimental to city health. If a city decides to put a coal power plant, say, right next to a residential sector, residents would breathe in the smoke and damage their lungs and hearts. Cities’ structure is of critical importance.
However, there are people who see this dire need to better plan out cities and who are working to create cities in a sustainable fashion. In 1978, the General Assembly of the United Nations mandated the UN-Habitat to address the issues of urban growth. UN-Habitat is the United Nations program working towards a better urban future. Its mission is to promote socially and environmentally sustainable human settlements, development, and the achievement of adequate shelter for all. UN-Habitat does things all over the world pertaining to this issue, having offices in nearly every continent. For the most part, they either financially support already existing policies or help create and alter policies with cities.
If governments and city planners work with organizations like UN-Habitat, cities can be a real force of good to the environment (in addition to the reduction of poverty and increased health in cities). Providing electricity, water, public transportation, and sanitation in densely populated, well planned areas is generally cheaper and less taxing on the environment than it is providing to rural areas. Since cities only take up about 2% of the total land area of the earth, this urban migration also means that there’s more area that can be given back to the nature. Environmental reclaiming of land is already happening in Europe, where many wild species have started to reinhabit formerly human-occupied land.
If urbanization is done right, it’s been shown that new arrivals from the countryside get better access to healthcare and schooling, and experience lower rates of child mortality.
A recent National Geographic report ranked cities based on three factors: people, planet, and profit. This Nat Geo report is interesting because it considers how cities have to juggle those three things. The Switzerland city, Zurich, ranked number one because of its livability, environmental policy, climate initiative, public transit, and strength as a financial institution. By looking at other cities such as Zurich, city planners can see what worked so well there and then see if those traits can be transferred to their respective city.
It’s easy to see how Zurich became number one because of how it has a large amount of financial resources, and it can easier take steps towards becoming a better city than it possibly could be for a developing country’s city could. However, a surprising city in a developing country ranked second: Singapore.
Singapore is an incredible example of how long-term city planning can make an impact. In 1965, Singapore was a city filled with slums, choked with traffic congestion, and could not provide enough jobs for its people. In the short time span of 50 years, Singapore was able to become a modern metropolis, an economic epicenter, and a city striving to become one of the greenest. In fact, there is a Singapore 2030 plan, which requires new developments to contain plant life. This will come in the form of green roofs, vertical gardens, and verdant walls. That city defies the notion that population density does not need to mean urban suffocation.
Singapore is a ray of hope for all cities. Perhaps what cities need are long term plans with experts who know what they’re doing.
So what is our role in all of this? Well, firstly, the attitude of changing layouts of cities and instead making them in a more sustainable way needs to change. Just being educated about this issue and taking into consideration why some cities are like what they are like is a huge step forward. Although, there are other things that we can do. In our country, we have huge infrastructure problems, and our government is struggling to come up with a solution. Even just urging our representatives, governor, and senators to come up with an infrastructure plan can help our country immensely, and in effect, possibly avert a global economic disaster. Once I turn 18, just voting in people which are sympathetic of other countries and are knowledgeable about this issue could really change the future of our planet.
Although I don’t expect the average Joe to understand all about urbanization, I wish its impacts were more widely known. Lots of people don’t think at all about the impact of your city’s structure in your or your neighbors lives. For example, if I wasn’t researching this topic, would I ever think about how Ann Arbor’s circle of highways limits the city’s land space and thus increases prices of housing? Would I ever think twice about why is it that Ann Arbor’s lowest income communities (Scio Farms) are pushed miles outside the city center (and the city border) and are placed on a 50mph road? Or about why is it that affordable housing is such an issue here?
Probably not. And that's a problem if we want an informed electorate. It is difficult to create cities if the officials that represent us do not listen to urban planners, or disregard the critical importance of having good ones. We need people who will listen, who will understand, and who are educated if we want a sustainable urban future for all of us.