1. Governance
August 25, 2015

So can cities really save the world?

By Samantha North

Some notes on this summer’s New Cities Summit in Jakarta. 

Talking about cities is all the rage these days. Experts say that cities can tackle climate change, address social inequality – even, according to a recent TedX talk given by the Belgian cultural philosopher Eric Corij, “save the world“.

But despite their rise – or even because of it – many of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing cities are already experiencing problems that threaten their continued development, and damage the quality of life of their citizens.

Jakarta is a prime example. The infrastructure of the Indonesian capital is straining at the seams to accommodate its growing population, which now numbers 11m in the city proper, and nearly three times that in the metropolis as a whole. A recent Castrol survey voted Jakarta the world’s most congested city, with the world’s most notorious traffic jams. Add this to an already serious ongoing flooding problem, and you’re left with a mega-city urgently in need of solutions.

Istanbul is another case in point. It officially has 14m residents, but unofficial counts put the city’s population far higher, at around 18m. Floods of refugees from Turkey’s troubled neighbours, along with undocumented migrants and tons of tourist traffic, are putting strain on the ancient city’s infrastructure and housing situation. Traffic congestion in Istanbul is severe, but the local authorities are trying to improve the transport connections, with new metro lines and a brand-new airport in the works.

In spite of issues such as these, the world remains firmly on track for an urban future. And it’s easy to get carried away amid all the hype. Little wonder, then, that the New Cities Summit in Jakarta earlier this summer was opened with the question: can cities really save the world? 

“It’s no longer a question but a statement,” said Siddhartha Sengupta, deputy managing director of the State Bank of India. “Cities have to save the world.” In other words, with such a large proportion of the world’s population living in cities, addressing any problem will require addressing it in an urban context.

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As to how cities would play this role, Sengupta said, “they must focus on three concepts: sustainability, scalability, and social justice”. He cites the oft-lambasted Detroit as a prime example of an unsustainable “dream town”, now decaying, because it couldn’t sustain itself in the midst of a rapidly changing economic landscape.

To avoid similar problems, Sengupta suggested either making existing cities more habitable, more scalable and more equal, or creating new ones from scratch. To find the resources for these endeavours, he suggested that municipalities should be empowered to raise their own funds.

However, Greg Lindsay, a senior fellow at the Paris-based think tank New Cities Foundation, questioned the entire premise of the question. Implicit in the notion that cities can save the world is the idea that the world is only half urbanised.

That’s true, in so much as only 53 per cent of the population lives in a city. But nonetheless, Lindsay argued, the world should instead be seen as already fully urbanised, with rural areas simply acting as support systems for an already city-led landscape.

On the ground, and of most immediate concern to city planners and governors, are the issues their ever-increasing populations present. “Our cities are not yet geared to meet this challenge,” Ahamed Muzammil, mayor of the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, told the summit. “But you can’t discourage people from coming to the cities. We need to provide enough services and facilities for them. It’s so difficult.”

Technology can provide small-scale solutions for some of these problems. In Jakarta, a start-up called Go-Jek is making life easier for commuters by offering a network of motorbike taxi drivers (known as ojeks), who can be summoned via smartphone app. It’s the Indonesian motor-bike answer to Über.

Flooding is another problem in the city. To help mitigate this, the Peta Jakarta project uses data mapping techniques and crowd sourcing to identify floods around the city and warn residents in advance.

It’s all very well to talk about saving cities with technology, finance and better governance. But at the same time, it’s important not to forget the single most important element in every city.

“Cities are not their buildings or their governance – they are their people,” said Greg Lindsay. “We need to empower the people in cities by giving them the tools to develop new forms of bottom-up governance.”

In fact, empowering citizens to create social change may be the most effective way of tackling cities’ problems. It has already proven effective in Jakarta. Models such as these can be used to benefit other cities around the world suffering from similar concerns.

In other words, cities may be most useful as a sort of lab in which to test solutions that can be rolled out worldwide. As Lindsay commented: “Cities may not save the world in themselves – but they are by far the best platform we have for doing so.”

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