SEATTLE, Washington — In 2007, the world’s balance tipped: for the first time in history, the number of urbanites surpassed the size of the rural population. The urban population is expected to double — to five billion people — by 2050.
In many respects, increasing urbanization is a harbinger of prosperity. A concentrated population means better access to goods and services, education, medicine and employment. Children are more likely to attend school, medical clinics are often more abundant and better-supplied, more specialization opens a wide variety of new positions to job-seekers. Studies have identified a powerful link between urbanization and economic growth, which suggests that the future of global fortune lies in the sustainable evolution of cityscapes.
Despite the boon, though, urban expansion can overextend infrastructure and lead to an increase in institutionalized poverty. Cities are paradoxical places where lavish high-rises border squalid slums, the rich barely avoiding rubbing shoulders with the poor. Income inequality is steeper in urban areas than in rural ones, and sometimes public services like schools and hospitals are overcrowded and underfunded.
An interesting example of urbanization’s downside is its effect on food security. In cities, cheap and processed foods are more readily available, and the fresh produce that forms the cornerstone of a healthy diet is too expensive to ship in from the countryside. This gives rise to the odd, tragic inconsistency that two billion of the world’s people are overweight or obese, while nearly 800 million do not have enough to eat.
Thus, a huge part of preventing urban poverty is planning for sustainable urban development. When cities are prepared for the influx of rural citizens, they adapt by fortifying infrastructure and maintaining programs that build strong communities. Without preparation, local governments face massive challenges in housing, education, health, food and water security and natural resources.
That’s where the United Nations Habitat III conference comes in. The event, which took place in Quito, Ecuador, in October, focused on the importance of urban development and renewed a worldwide commitment to coping effectively with burgeoning cities. In the resolution ratified by the end of the conference, participants shared a vision of growth and sustainability, a “rethinking [of]the way we build, manage, and live in cities.” Though the resolution was non-binding, it sets an important standard for urban centers as the world’s urban population continues to climb.
At the center of this plan for urban development is food. A healthy, affordable diet is critical to urban dwellers and a lynchpin of global health, so cities must develop community programs dedicated to improving access to nutrient-rich foods. One example is the EAT-C40 Urban Food Systems Network, which works directly with local governments to encourage global cooperation in reaching ambitious food goals.
“Mayors have a great opportunity to transform food systems for the long-term benefit of urban citizens and the world’s climate,” says Mark Watts, executive director of C40. The goal is to create and implement comprehensive solutions that reduce carbon emissions and improve efficiency in the urban production of food.
Prosperity hinges on this kind of ambitious, mindful urban development driven by sustainable best practices. Preparing the infrastructure in advance will help local governments to defeat poverty before it begins.
– Madeleine Read