Urbanization is intertwined with several existential global challenges: Cities do not exist in isolation from global challenges. The emergence of urbanization as a global megatrend is intertwined with the existential challenges that the world has faced in the last 50 years, including climate change, rising inequality and the rise in zoonotic viruses with the latest being the novel coronavirus pandemic, which triggered the worst public health crisis in a century and the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. These challenges will in different ways, leave their imprints on the future of cities.
In UN-Habitat’s new World Cities Report 2022 – Envisaging the Future of Cities, three scenarios, or three paths were identified, that the world’s cities could take at this critical juncture.
- In the worst-case or “high damage” scenario, we assume that policy-making and governance will become even weaker and more ineffective. The destructive effects of the pandemic, climate change, inequality, poverty, and long-running conflicts, if not adequately addressed, will have disastrous consequences for cities in both developed and developing countries, though the latter would suffer most because of existing vulnerabilities. If 80 per cent of the economic damage inflicted by COVID-19 persists for a decade, then the number of people living in poverty could increase by more than 200 million by 2050.
- The middling, or “pessimistic scenario”, foresees a reversion to the status quo before the pandemic. This business-as-usual approach would be characterised by exploitation and exclusion of informal sector workers, systemic discrimination of the urban poor, unimaginative policies and poor implementation on the climate crisis, public transport, or urban regeneration programmes and renewal. Cities could be locked into cycles of poverty, poor productivity, unhealthy living conditions and become inequality traps for decades.
- The report, however, also envisages an optimistic future. Governments and donors would invest in urban development sufficiently to create just, resilient, healthy, and prosperous cities everywhere. By 2050, there could be 260 million people lifted out of poverty compared to the pre-COVID baseline. National governments would embrace peace and diplomacy to resolve their differences rather than pursuing military action, avoiding drastic global economic consequences such as those inflicted on the supply of food and energy by the war in Ukraine. Governments would manage the remainder of the COVID-19 pandemic competently, balancing health outcomes and economic recovery, and thus smoothing out global supply chains. They would also prepare adequately for the next pandemic.