Future of Cities

Authors: Ráhel Czirják, László Gere

Cities, embodiments of human civilisation, existed already in the millennia before the Common Era. However, the percentage of urban population compared to the total population of the Earth remained very limited until the industrial revolution, when technological development and socio-economic changes induced explosive growth. In the developing world, this modern urbanisation started only after regaining freedom from colonial rule. Despite the one and a half or two century backwardness, the urban population of the global South today far exceeds that of the developed world and the difference will remain. But what will the future bring? What trends can be expected until the middle of the century and what will our cities look like in 2050? We are trying to find answers for these questions in the present article relying on different forecasts and predictions.

Demographic Trends

From a settlement aspect, 2007 was a turning point in human history, because since that year more than half of humanity have been living in cities. The tendency is going to continue, so we can state that we live in an increasingly urban world. According to the UN’s forecast named World Urbanisation Prospects (2014), 66.4% of the Earth’s population will live in cities by 2050, which means over 6.3 billion people.

At the same time the growth rate of rural areas tends to decrease. While the growth rate was average 0.26% at the turn of the millennium, until today this has fallen to 0.07%. The UN expects the growth to have a negative rate between 2020 and 2025, by 2050 the rural population will decrease by 0.4% annually. In absolute numbers this means growth in rural population until 2020, when it reaches a peak of 3.38 billion. After that a slow decrease starts and by 2050 only 3.2 billion people will live in rural areas.

The growth of urban population is not a uniform process in the different regions of the world. The most urban areas of the Earth are in the developed world according to the UN classification: Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Latin America and the Caribbean also belong here as kind of odd ones out. In these regions and countries, the urbanisation rate (that is the proportion of urban population within the total population) is over 78% on the average, and by 2050 it is s expected to grow to 85.4%. As opposed to this, the urbanisation rate in the emerging world (Africa and Asia) has not yet exceeded the 50% turning point, and will be 63.4% by 2050. Considering the absolute numbers, the area is not legging that far behind. While there live less than 1 billion people in the cities of the global North and their number will be around 1.1 billion by 2050, the number of people living in urban environment is already over 3 billion, and this will grow to 5.2 billion by 2050. In other words, the major portion of urban population growth—94%—is predicted to be realised in the developing world.

In a continental distribution we can say that the most rapidly urbanising region is Africa, where the urban population grows by an annual 3.4%. The pace of growth will decrease by 2050—it will be ‘only’ 2.56%—but this huge population growth will cause the urban population to grow from the present 505 million to 1.3 billion until 2050. Considering urbanisation rate, the most urbanised continent of the Earth is America. In the Northern region, the urban population proportion is 82%, in Latin America it is 83%. This means an absolute of 817 million people. Due to the particularly high percentage of urban population, the growth rates are not as significant as in Africa: in North America 1%, in Central and South America 1.3%. The growth is projected to slow down in the future: until the middle of the century the urban population growth in the northern part of the continent will be an annual average of 0.6%, while in the southern part 0.44%. These tendencies will result in having an urban population over 1 billion people in 2050.

The ‘Old Continent’ has a similarly high urbanisation rate, too: it’s currently 74% and is forecasted to grow to 82% by 2050. However, there is a significant difference behind these figures in comparison with Africa if we consider the absolute urban population number. In Europe 550 million people live in urban areas and their number will grow with maximum 30 million until the middle of the century.

Considering the proportion of urban population within the total population, the third place among the continents is taken by Australia and Oceania, where 70.8% of the total population live in cities. According to forecasts, the ratio will slowly grow to 73.5%, that is the urban population number will grow from the present 28 million to 42 million on the continent by 2050.

Regarding the absolute population, Asia is standing out of the other continents, because the urban population is already over 2 billion and it will grow to 3.3 billion until 2050. This means that by the middle of the century half of the world’s population will live in the urban areas of Asia.

Cities as Global Power Centres

As opposed to the dynamism of economic, social and technological forces, politics and governance seems to be fairly static. The Westphalia system of nation states has been dominant for almost five centuries, but global governance still remains weak. And this gives an opportunity for cities to rise. The rapid urbanisation of the developing world will shift the centres of gravity from West to East and from North to South by 2050. In 2014, half of the world’s urban population came from Asia. Another very illuminative comparison says that half of the world’s urban population come from altogether seven countries (also in 2014), which are (in descending order of urban population): China, India, the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, Japan and Russia.

Cities have a growing economic power and 80% of global GDP is already produced in cities. If all the major global cities in the city ranking of the Brooking Institution (New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris and London) formed one state, it would be the third biggest economy in the world after the United States and China (in terms of GDP).

A shift to the East is already being experienced today, and as trends predict, it will be even more significant in the future. The above-mentioned city ranking has several categories for Asian cities: it treats the group named Asian anchors (Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul-Incheon, Shanghai and Singapore) separately, discusses 22 cities in the category of the Chinese industrial cities, the category of emerging gateways deals with 28 large cities 13 of which is located in Asia (10 in China).

The growth of cities is an indispensable prerequisite for the economic growth of the given countries—this is one of the basic assumptions of the study prepared by the McKinsey Institute about the urban population of China, that will grow to 1 billion by 2030, which requires developing a well thought-out urban planning strategy. It is because productivity can be increased most effectively with a higher degree of urban concentration. The study says that the concentrated growth scenario predicts 20% higher GDP than the scenario about scattered development.

In 2014,  28 megacities (cities with a population over 10 million) were home to one in eight of the world’s urban dwellers. Most of the megacities and large cities (cities with a population between 5 and 10 million) are located in the global South, as opposed to the situation a few decades ago. China alone has six megacities (Shenzhen, Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing) and 10 large cities, and it will add one more megacity (Chengdu) and six more large cities by 2030. Four of India’s large cities presently are projected to become megacities in the coming years (Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmadabad), for a total of seven megacities projected in the country by 2030 (the three existing ones are Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta). Outside these two countries there were 7 megacities and 11 large cities in Asia in 2014. The 3 megacities of Africa are Cairo, Kinshasa and Lagos, but by 2030 another three cities will reach a population over 10 million (Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg and Luanda). By 2030 the number of megacities will rise from the three in 2014 to twelve. The four megacities of Latin America (Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo) will be joined by two others by 2030: Bogota and Lima. The population of the current megacities (e.g. New York, Tokyo, London, Paris, Moscow), however, will minimally increase or even decrease, so their global significance will probably be smaller (although it is important to know that global weight is determined not only by the size of population, but also by various other factors like economic performance, education, accessibility etc.). So—according to forecasts—the power and influence of the cities in the global South will substantially grow by 2050.

Environmental Sustainability in Future Cities

At present 2% of land is occupied by human settlements and infrastructure, but with continuing population growth and urbanisation, this ratio may double by 2050. Cities—due to their high concentration of population—put increased burdens on the environment both in terms of input and end products of resource utilisation.

Per capita energy consumption has doubled since 1950, and it can grow by another 50% until 2030, according to the World Economic Forum’s forecast. The International Energy Agency projects that this will mean doubled consumption in Asia. Although thanks to various technological developments the application of renewable energy sources is moving to the fore these days, the rapidly growing energy demand will be satisfied using mostly fossil fuels.

This will considerably increase greenhouse gas emission, half of which is already released by cities. The OECD’s Environmental Outlook forecast warns that by 2050 air pollution will be the leading cause of deaths related to the environment. Air pollution shows significant regional differences; developed countries are expected to start reducing air pollutant emission, while in emerging countries this will happen one or two decades later.

Air, soil and water pollution levels are very high globally and forecasts say it will continue to grow, especially in Asia. The major pollution emitters are cities, so the urbanisation trends detailed above will most probably lead to growing environmental pressure if there is no change in environmental regulation and technologies. The future holds numerous environmental challenges for urban regions, the solution of which is of key importance for the Earth. These challenges can be answered among others by changing consumption habits, actions from environmental policies and new technologies.

Technological Solutions of Future Cities

Technological changes can have negative effects; it is enough to mention the uncompetitiveness of human labour in certain jobs as opposed to robots. As a result of automation and globalisation, production and manufacturing industries—and the related jobs—have moved to the developing world. Currently the same is happening to several office jobs of the service industry. But cities will continue to benefit from technological changes—even if it’s only contributory and sometimes harmful. Technological changes enable cities to access global markets, discover new opportunities in education and training, develop medical services, gather and utilise big data and several other examples could be brought.

Technological changes will alter a whole city’s operation by 2050. This can be witnessed now, because different smart city solutions have started to spread already, and we will make big steps forward in optimising the processes in the future. It will be even the more indispensable because there’s still significant growth going on in cities in the developing world, to which public utilities have to be adapted. This can be most easily and cost-effectively done through IT and technological solutions. Here are some ideas about future cities:

  • green cities: since environmental pressure is concentrated in large cities, the expansion of green areas becomes more emphatic, on the surfaces of buildings as well (this is the so-called vertical forest, a fairly widespread construction form). The Paris 2050 visualisation is a fine example of the green city (where vertical farms also appear).
  • smart infrastructure in cities: the process of making all public utility services measurable and closely monitored will become extended and in the future integrated systems will control and manage the city’s operations in several areas from water supply and public lighting to transport and air quality. Such technology is already available, we can even identify areas of application, but in 2050 we’ll have more widespread and much better systems.
  • giant buildings: large housing units are nothing new. At the beginning of the 20th century several designers (the most famous is probably Le Corbusier) dealt with the idea of buildings accommodating the population of a whole city. The dramatic growth of population is still a problem in several cities in the middle of the 21st century, so it is conceivable that housing needs will be satisfied by giant buildings that are much larger than those that exist now.
  • energy efficient cities: numerous projects and urban cooperation programmes have set the goal of transforming cities into low-energy cities through complex infrastructural investments. For this the integrated cooperation of several areas (power generation, waste management, transport, architecture, public utilities etc.) is necessary.

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