WASHINGTON -- The growth of cities will be the single largest influence on human society in the 21st century, according to a new United Nations report, which argues that urbanization can be a much more powerful force for positive change than many currently believe.
Around the world, urban areas are growing at more than 1.2 million people a week, says "State of the World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth."
The report notes that 2030's expected urban population will be nearly 5 billion. By contrast, the total human population this year -- both urban and rural -- is around 6 billion.
The future of cities in developing countries -- and the future of humanity itself -- "depend very much on the decisions made now in preparation for this growth," George Martine, the principle author of the report, said at its release last week.
Urbanization is inevitable but it can also be positive, he added.
Up to now, policy makers and civil society organizations have merely reacted to the challenges of urbanization as they arise. Instead, "a pre-emptive approach is needed," argues Martine's report, adding that policy makers and advocates must better understand the way cities are growing if they are to effectively solve the related social and environmental problems.
A key misconception to be dispelled, according to the report, is that urbanization is inherently bad for people and the planet. Images of city slums, poverty, and environmental degradation can easily lead people to judge city growth negatively, but according to Martine, "urbanization can and should be a force for good."
There are many economic, social, and environmental advantages to concentrating people and the services and jobs they need in close proximity to one another. The higher intensity of economic activity in cities favors jobs and income. In addition to this, proximity and concentration allow for governments to more effectively and inexpensively provide social services, infrastructure, and amenities to their citizens, the report explains.
And from an environmental standpoint, concentrating the world's population minimizes human encroachment on natural habitats.
The Worldwatch Institute's Christopher Flavin sees cities as powerful drivers behind efforts to combat climate change. As national governments and the international community have lagged on many environmental initiatives, he said recently, cities are stepping in to put in place "concrete policies and plans that address climate issues."
Cities like Rizhao, China; Bogota, Colombia; Chicago; and New York are among the many implementing environmentally friendly building, car, and energy strategies, according to Flavin's group. And this, he said, is becoming an important national and international political force placing pressure on governments worldwide to step up.
Flavin spoke at the Washington, DC release of the 108-page report, which is the annual flagship analysis produced by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA).
Another common misconception the report debunks is that the majority of urban growth is occurring in mega-cities (those with 10 million or more people). The truth is that smaller cities -- those with less than 500,000 inhabitants -- contain more than half the world's urban population and will continue to absorb the majority of urban growth in the future.
This is good news, says UNFPA, because smaller cities usually have greater flexibility to expand, ability to attract investments, and decision-making autonomy.
The bad news, however, is that smaller cities generally have more unaddressed issues and may have problems with housing, drinking water, sanitation, waste disposal, and other public services.
UNFPA's report is hopeful that, once political leaders better understand these characteristics of urbanization, its benefits can be maximized and negative consequences reduced.
U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) is also optimistic. "The world's cities are places of hope," she said last week. "The possibilities are there, and that is what we should focus on for the future."
In cities, vast inequalities remain, Maloney said, citing particularly the area of reproductive health. "There are huge gaps in access between the wealthy and the poor, and we must reverse this trend."
Improving access to reproductive health would help slow the growth of cities, the UN report says, adding that "natural increase" -- the difference between births and deaths -- is the main cause of urban growth.
Worldwide, many lawmakers mistakenly focus on preventing rural-urban migration, believing this to be the main cause of city growth, according to the report. A better approach to slow urban growth -- and buy time to prepare for the expansion of urban populations -- would be to focus on lowering unwanted fertility, says UNFPA.
Empowering women and ensuring better access to health services could help achieve this goal, the UN agency says.
Additionally, it warns against measures that try to curb urbanization, as these can make both urban and rural poverty worse because they attempt to contravene economic realities.
"Workers need the opportunities cities offer, and cities need workers," the UNFPA report states, adding that millions of migrants move to cities each year because they intuitively perceive the advantages of urban life.
"Facilitating urbanization and increasing interactions between rural and urban areas, rather than trying to prevent or ignore it, can stimulate rural and urban development," UNFPA says.
Overall, urbanization has the potential to be a positive force economically, socially, and environmentally, the report's lead author Martine said last week.
"The vast urban expansion in developing countries has global implications and requires a global response," he explained. "The train is in motion and together we have to make sure we are on the right track."
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