The Challenges of Managing Global Urbanization

As cities -- and slums -- grow around the world, governments are going to need to step up their game.
December 2, 2015
By Elizabeth K. Kellar  |  Contributor
Senior Fellow with the Center for State and Local Government Excellence and director of public policy for the International City/County Management Association

Urbanization is accelerating across the globe, and local leaders are scrambling to deal with it. In 1970, 37 percent of the world's population lived in urban areas. That grew to 47 percent by the turn of the century, and by the year 2030 it's projected that 60 percent of the population will be living in urban areas, according to UN-Habitat.

This rapid urbanization is straining infrastructure, services and the environment. Unfortunately, too many of those living in urban areas today live in slums. In Africa, 60 percent of urban dwellers live in slums, as do 43 percent of those in South Asia.

While national governments give these matters attention, local governments have a greater sense of urgency to make their communities places where people want to live, work and play. At the Urban Innovation Workshop last month in Guangzhou, China, local leaders from all over the world shared their ideas and experiences in dealing with traffic congestion, planning, housing, public engagement, resource management and sanitation.

Mining big data and using sensors to tackle traffic congestion are examples of solutions that are making a difference in many urban centers. Closing streets to vehicles in downtowns is another strategy that is gaining popularity as a way to retain a sense of place and improve the quality of life. A visioning process for Sydney, Australia, in 2030, for example, identified the importance of the physical environment to residents and a desire for a more pedestrian-friendly downtown. Connecting to youth using crowdsourcing and hackathons to tap into the creativity and expertise of large numbers of people are other ways some places are capturing ideas about what people want to see in their city in the future.

But technology alone can't solve every urban problem. Sometimes bureaucratic barriers at all levels of government get in the way and make it difficult to provide even basic water and sewer necessities. Changing laws and long-standing, cumbersome practices has to be part of the solution. Smart leaders press their agencies to work across departments, across jurisdictions, and with the nonprofit and private sectors to tackle gnarly problems.

When governments fail, communities suffer. In Brazil, for example, the favelas -- shantytowns located within cities or on their outskirts -- have their own ways of operating outside of government. They illegally string wires to provide cheap electricity to residents and sometimes are ruled by drug gangs. A favela entrepreneur can set up shop, offering to buy and sell properties in the slum. Local zoning laws that require minimum lot sizes have made it more difficult to create affordable housing.

Many governments are struggling to meet basic shelter needs. They will need to step up their game, which is made more complicated by climate change, rising sea levels and increased flooding

Will cities become the new centers of power around the world to develop more-strategic approaches to these huge challenges? Will national governments give them the authority and resources to tackle the problems? And can our societies become comfortable with some level of experimentation so that new approaches can be tested?

The smart cities of today and the smarter cities of the future will thrive if they can tap into the full range of expertise and passion of everyone who is ready and able to step up to the challenges.