Cities have never been under such pressure. Their role is to build places to live, provide education, ensure air quality, create economic incentives, organise cultural events, manage traffic, fight poverty – and now tackle a pandemic, too. Nowhere is the risk of being infected with coronavirus greater than in areas with a high population density and where social distancing is difficult to practice. From Wuhan to Bergamo, Madrid to New York, and Mexico City to Mumbai, the pandemic is impacting massively on all those living in cities.
Even without a pandemic, cities face huge pressures. Their non-stop expansion poses ever greater challenges. The urban population has outstripped the rural population since 2007, and by the middle of the century, towns and cities will probably be home to two thirds of the world’s population. And these are not new predictions, either: experts were making them 10 years ago, when the city of Shanghai hosted Expo 2010. The theme of the Expo was ‘Better City, Better Life’. I visited it twice on business and saw for myself the huge range of approaches to improving human life through smart cities. Two very different approaches have stayed with me in particular. One was a simulation of a city without the flickering lights of street advertising, projected by artists onto São Paulo. This city of 12 million inhabitants – or 22 million, depending on whether you include all the suburbs – is one the world’s largest urban areas. Light can put pressure on the population and the environment if there is too much of it. This is what is known as light pollution, as opposed to air pollution. The Danish city of Odense, by contrast, has just 180,000 inhabitants and is peaceful and idyllic. In Shanghai, the city presented its cycle-friendly credentials, inviting visitors to take to two wheels to see for themselves.
A tale of two cities. What these two very different cities have in common is that they put people at the centre of the way they operate. Urban development has traditionally focused on individual sectors, such as water, waste disposal or mobility, taking a more detached, technical approach involving infrastructure measures. Now, though, we need to think more holistically. So our urban expert Carmen Vogt writes in this issue about sustainable urban development that is more than the sum of its many parts. The principle focus, she concludes, is on people.
So it is worthwhile taking a more proactive approach to urban development and tailoring it to what individuals need, rather than simply letting it happen. Density of population is actually a great opportunity: it is possible to achieve a lot within a small space, to develop sustainable solutions for living, to put transport on a more sustainable footing and to create a circular economy. A decade ago, at the Expo in Shanghai, there was already support for the concept of towns and cities as a laboratory, an opportunity to really make use of human creativity and transform cities into what they actually should be, namely hubs for a productive coexistence and a decent quality of life for all. Maybe the current hiatus caused by the coronavirus crisis offers an opportunity to achieve this. At least, that is how Bonn’s Mayor, Ashok-Alexander Sridharan, sees it. In an interview with akzente, he explains what the crisis has to do with sustainability and why the pandemic has made this even more important.
What urbanisation means – and should not mean – for Africa is set out very clearly in a forward-looking essay by Ghanaian urban planning expert Professor Seth Asare Okyere. He argues that we should be aiming not for glass palaces hidden away behind secure walls, or for smart, hi-tech districts, but affordable housing, adequate green spaces, universal basic services and greater citizen participation. These are the things that make even rapidly expanding cities good places to live in. Finally, our report from the Indian city of Bhubaneswar shows that citizens can indeed achieve great things by working together in areas such as climate change adaptation.
These and other urban development initiatives, both big and small, form the focus of this issue of akzente. And maybe one of the articles will give you some ideas for your own community?