U.N.: Global Population Migrating to Cities

The United Nations today publicly confirmed what Spectrum magazine has been telling readers this month: people the world over are moving to cities, creating enormous urban centers with new challenges and opportunities. In our special report on Megacities: A How-To Manual, Spectrum's editorial team reports back from some of the planet's largest communities on what makes big cities tick and how the accelerating population shift is affecting them going forward.

In its annual State of World Population report, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said that half the world's population -- 3.3 billion people -- will reside in cities by next year and called the turning point "an invisible but momentous milestone." The document, entitled Unleashing the Potential of Human Growth, warned: "Many of the new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much on decisions made now in preparation for this growth."

The U.N. agency predicted (as we reported at the beginning of the month) that the explosive growth of the world's cities will continue unabated for the foreseeable future. It said that by the year 2030 the ranks of cities will swell to 5 billion. This massive influx of humanity into urban habitats will exacerbate problems currently found in big cities -- such as poverty and religious extremism -- and create new ones to complicate matters further.

"What happens in the cities of Africa and Asia and other regions will shape our common future," UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said in London upon the report's release. "We must abandon a mindset that resists urbanization and act now to begin a concerted global effort to help cities unleash their potential to spur economic growth and solve social problems."

The report emphasized the need for national governments and international bodies to act to meet the new challenges of rapid urban growth swiftly:

'Once policymakers and civil society understand and accept the demographic and social composition of urban growth, some basic approaches and initiatives suggest themselves. These could have a huge impact on the fate of poor people and on the viability of the cities themselves. Throughout this Report the message is clear: Urban and national governments, together with civil society, and supported by international organizations, can take steps now that will make a huge difference for the social, economic and environmental living conditions of a majority of the world's population.'

In our own report on the future of megacities, we produced two articles that bear closer inspection in the aftermath of the UNFPA study. The first of these is a proscription on urban planning and policy. The second is a prescription on how to build better cities, about the work of a visionary who offers concepts to tackle the ills that plague the world's biggest metropolises.

In "How Not to Make a Meagacity", Senior Editor Harry Goldstein writes about the troubled state of affairs in Lagos, Nigeria, after visiting the sprawling landscape of Africa's second largest city (after Cairo). "Despite Nigeria's enormous oil wealth, tens of billions of dollars have gone missing over the years in this country -- one of the world's most corrupt -- and few investments have been made in infrastructure."

In "How to Design a Perfect City", Senior Associate Editor Stephen Cass (who originated the idea for this month's special issue) reviews the work of urban architect Paolo Soleri, now 88 and still hard at work on the problems of urban design.

"Soleri has been designing his so-called arcologies for decades. His drawings of the megastructures, which integrate all the functions of a city into one efficient supersystem, are as much art as engineering," Cass writes. "He has created plans for floating cities, orbiting space colonies, and a building that would fit more than 100 000 people onto a single square kilometer."

Please set aside some time to examine the U.N. report on the world's shifting population. And for more information on this dynamic test of the planet's resources, pick up a copy of Spectrum magazine or browse our online resources this month. You'll be startled by the magnitude of the problem.

[Editor's Note: Please listen to our Spectrum Radio podcast on Megacities: An IEEE Spectrum Special Report.]

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