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The biggest risks facing our cities – and some solutions

TED Talk, Robert Muggah

If we get our cities right, we just might survive the 21st century. We get them wrong, and we’re done for 

Cities are the most extraordinary experiment in social engineering that we humans have ever come up with. If you live in a city, and even if you live in a slum – which 20 percent of the world’s urban population does – you’re likely to be healthier, wealthier, better educated and live longer than your country cousins.  

There’s a reason why three million people are moving to cities every single week. Cities are where the future happens first. They’re the perfect antidote to reactionary nationalism.

But cities have a dark side. They take up just three percent of the world’s surface area, but they account for more than 75 percent of our energy consumption, and they emit 80 percent of our greenhouse gases. There are hundreds of thousands of people who die in our cities every single year from violence, and millions more who are killed as a result of car accidents and pollution.  

Part of the problem is that, apart from a handful of megacities in the West and the Far East, we don’t know that much about the thousands of cities in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia, where 90 percent of all future population growth is set to take place. 

What you see here is every single city with a population of a quarter million people or more. The redder the circle, the more fragile that city is, and the bluer the circle, the more resilient.  

Fragility occurs when the social contract comes unstuck. And what we tend to see is a convergence of multiple kinds of risks: income inequality, poverty, youth unemployment, different issues around violence, even exposure to droughts, cyclones and earthquakes.  

Fragility is deepening, especially in those parts of the world that are most vulnerable, in North Africa, the Middle East, in South Asia and Central Asia. There, we’re seeing fragility rising way beyond scales we’ve ever seen before. When cities become too fragile they can collapse, tip over and fail.  

Now, as grim and gloomy as the situation is — and it is – there is a little bit of hope.  

Despite climate denial at the highest levels, cities are taking action. 

When the US pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, hundreds of cities in the United States and thousands more around the world doubled down on their climate commitments. And when the White House cracked down on so-called “undocumented migrants” in sanctuary cities, hundreds of cities and counties and states sat up in defiance and refused to enact that order. So cities are and can take action. 

But we’re going to need to see a lot more of it, especially in the global south.  

You see, parts of Africa and Latin America are urbanising before they industrialise. They’re growing at three times the global average in terms their population. And this is putting enormous strain on infrastructure and services.  

Now, this is a golden opportunity. It’s a small opportunity but a golden one: in the next 10 to 20 years, to really start designing in principles of resilience into our cities. There’s not one single way of doing this, but there are a number of ways that are emerging. A number of recurring principles keep coming out. I just want to pass on six.

First: cities need a plan and a strategy to implement it.  

The vast majority of world cities don’t actually have a plan or a vision. They’re too busy putting out daily fires to think ahead strategically.  What cities need is nothing less than a devolution revolution, and this is going to require renegotiating the terms of the contract with a nation-state.  

Second: you’ve got to go green.  

Cities are already investing heavily in renewables — in solar and wind – not just in North America, but especially in Western Europe and parts of Asia. There are more than 8,000 cities right now in the world today with solar plants. There are 300 cities that have declared complete energy autonomy.  

Third: invest in integrated and multi-use solutions. 

The most successful cities are those that are going to invest in solutions that don’t solve just one problem, but that solve multiple problems. Take the case of integrated public transport. When done well – rapid bus transit, light rail, bikeways, walkways, boatways – these can dramatically reduce emissions and congestion. But they can do a lot more than that. They can improve public health. They can reduce dispersion. They can even increase safety.   

Fourth: build densely but also sustainably. 

The death of all cities is the sprawl. Cities need to know how to build resiliently, but also in a way that’s inclusive.  

Fifth: steal. 

The smartest cities are nicking, pilfering, stealing, left, right and center. They don’t have time to waste. They need tomorrow’s technology today, and they’re going to leapfrog to get there. The urban renaissance is only going to be enabled when cities start borrowing from one another.  

And finally: work in global coalitions. 

You know, there are more than 200 inner-city coalitions in the world today. There are more city coalitions than there are coalitions for nation-states. When cities work together, they can amplify their voice, not just on the national stage, but on the global stage. And with a voice comes, potentially, a vote – and then maybe even a veto.  

When nation-states default on their national sovereignty, cities have to step up. They can’t wait. And they don’t need to ask for permission. They can exert their own sovereignty.  

And in this moment of extraordinary international uncertainty, when our multilateral institutions are paralysed and our nation-states are in retreat, cities and their leaders are our new 21st-century visionaries. They deserve — no, they have a right to — a seat at the table.

This is an extract from,”The biggest risks facing our cities – and some solutions” (TedTalk)