We live at a time of two great — and linked — transitions. The first is that about a decade ago we became an urban species, with more than half of humanity living in urban areas. The United Nations reported that in 2014 we reached 54 per cent urbanization, and that we will reach 66 per cent — two-thirds — by 2050.
It is expected that we will add 2.5 billion people to the world’s urban population by 2050 — about 1.3 million new urbanites a week for the next 35 years, almost all of them in Asia and Africa. And it won’t stop there.
More than 40 countries are at least 80 per cent urbanized, and that is where the world is headed. Interestingly, almost half the urban population lives in small cities, with fewer than 500,000 people.
Measures to slow or even reverse urbanization in the mid-20th century proved to be both misguided and spectacularly unsuccessful. In many ways, people like cities. They flock to them — or are driven to them — for economic and social reasons. But once there, they need the services and amenities that make life not just possible, but good.
The second transition is that we are entering the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch marked by colossal and rapid human impact on Earth’s systems. That change is driven by three powerful forces: population growth, economic growth, and growth in the power and pervasiveness of our technology.
Thankfully, population growth is slowing, in large part due to human, social and economic development. It has been known for a long time that the principal driver of reduced family size is the education and emancipation of women, coupled with increased infant and child survival. The latter depends largely upon public-health measures such as clean water, sanitation, safer childbirth, immunization and clean indoor air resulting from improved heating and cooking technology.
Education, more generally, is a powerful force for human and social development, and for improving one’s economic prospects, as well as those of one’s descendants. That has been brought home to me these past two weeks, as I have met my former junior high school students from 50 years ago; education has improved and enriched their lives in so many ways.
Public health and education are vitally important social investments that require a certain level of economic development. Indeed, life expectancy increases quite rapidly for the first few thousand dollars per capita of GDP. (It is a bad measure, as I have written before, but it is what we are stuck with for now.) Then it starts to plateau; further increases in GDP per capita do not increase life expectancy — but they do result in more damage to our environment and natural resources, for little or no gain in human development.
I have spent the past three weeks in Kuching and Georgetown (Penang), in Malaysia, both middle-sized cities in a middle-income country. And for many, the consumer lifestyle of the West — and especially North America — is the goal; in fact, the national goal of Malaysia is to become a high-income country by 2020.
The evidence is everywhere, especially in the form of cars and urban sprawl, but also in the form of electronic gadgets, fast food and “stuff.” But as the World Wide Fund for Nature’s latest Living Planet report points out, if we all lived at the North American material standard, we would need several more planets than we have.
So we have a dilemma: We need development, but at the same time, it brings with it many problems. We can hardly blame people in middle- and low-income countries for wanting what we have and what we assiduously export. But given the planet has boundaries we cannot transgress, and that low-income countries and populations need development, the only way we can make room is for high-income countries and populations to take less.
So it is up to us to figure out how to have a high quality of life with less quantity, how to have a steady-state, zero-growth economy, and especially — because that is where we live — how to do this in our cities. This is the great challenge of our urban age, a challenge Victoria, as a typical small city, must rise to.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.