Sun, Oct 20, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Cities dig deep and rise up to overcome growing threats

Urban planning has shifted as city planners search for better ways to adapt to climate change, rising inequality and swelling populations

By Zoe Tabary  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, LONDON

Illustration: Louise Ting

Driverless transport, underground shops, heated bike paths, armed street patrols — this is not the setting for a dystopian novel, but it could soon be the city where you live.

As the world sees the biggest wave of urban growth in history — with almost 70 percent of its population expected to be living in urban areas by 2050, up from 56 percent today — the task of making cities greener and safer is becoming more urgent.

That cities are attracting more people is nothing new, noted urban specialist Philipp Rode, who runs London-based research center LSE Cities.

“People move to cities to live and work because they’re a solution: They significantly reduce the amount of movement and space required to do anything,” he said. “But the absolute increase in population, the millions coming into cities — that’s unprecedented.”

The shift is creating significant challenges for many cities already at risk from worsening climate change and rising inequality, with the race on to house swelling populations and tackle homelessness.

To cope with these modern-day pressures, cities around the world are trying to become “smarter” — from moving storage and retail facilities underground, to using data and technology to improve security, healthcare and mobility.

Many cities, particularly in poorer nations, are also facing large and expanding slum populations which lack basic services, fueling inequality, and, in some cases, violence.

Mandy Pienaar, a 43-year-old media executive from Johannesburg, knows this only too well.

One winter evening, as she and her boyfriend drove home from the movies in the South African city, two armed assailants hijacked their car, stripped them of their clothing and stole their bank cards before the couple managed to escape.

“It was quite shocking because there were a lot of people walking past who kind of looked at me as if this was an everyday occurrence, to see a stripped woman sitting in a slum area in the cold,” Pienaar said.

Their ordeal illustrates the “false sense of security” that comes with living as they do in a gated community, she said.

“We have bars on every window, huge dogs, electric fencing ... to us that’s normal. We’ve become desensitized,” she added.

Community-led projects like “vuvuzela patrols” aim to tackle such violence, with groups of men armed with plastic trumpets escorting women on their daily commutes in Johannesburg.

Security is not the only worry on urban planners’ minds.

From the small US city of Duluth, Minnesota, to the metropolis of Hong Kong, cities are thrashing out ways to reinvent themselves and revamp how their residents live, move and consume.

“Mobility, water, waste: The world’s greatest challenges are solved in cities,” said Tiina Kaho, head of the Helsinki Metropolitan Smart & Clean Foundation, a coalition of businesses, researchers and state officials.

Yet as the world transforms rapidly, “cities will have to innovate like never before,” she said.


From Singapore to sub-Saharan Africa, cities are running out of space to house swelling populations.

“It’s a scarce resource,” Rode said. “Using that space in the most efficient way possible is crucial.”

Historically cities have tended to grow outwards rather than upwards, according to a report published by the World Resources Institute and Yale University in January.

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