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Our cities are full – we need new ones

Durban harbour. Picture: Supplied.

Durban. Picture: Supplied.

By Matt Coetzee

By 2050, the UN predicts that cities will somehow accommodate a massive 2.5 billion more people than the 4 billion that already live there. The big question is: Where are they all going to go? How do we make sure these places are fit for the continued influx of people? By walking a mile in their citizens’ shoes, could we simply replace imperfect cities with improved ones?

People must live and work somewhere. Given ructions in the world economy, evidence shows that more people believe their best bet for a better life is in cities. This is especially true in developing countries. And they are right. According to the UN Habitat, urban areas generate 70% of global GDP.

With people sold on the idea of cities, where else are they going to go?

Existing cities have developed for good reason, but always piecemeal, forever behind the rising curve of practical need. Demand outstrips supply many times over.

Cities can expand upwards or downwards, but this is a finite solution. More often, cities sprawl sideways, with the centres de-densifying in favour of suburbanisation.

Inhabitants often discover that, at the periphery, there is no public transport, forcing them into cars which worsens congestion, pollutes the air and ups the per capita carbon footprint.

Life becomes stressful, with residents more prone to ill-health.

New people who are intent on bettering their families arrive in big cities, but they face problems. Native inhabitants who are intent on protecting their advantages also face problems. And no one is consulted about the change.

Is better urban governance part of the solution?

City leaders can efficiently organise when driven by a worthy ambition to provide shelter for all citizens. However, they suffer the same fate as the city’s infrastructure. They are unable to keep up with the real issues.

The American academic Benjamin Barber, author of ‘If Mayors Ruled the World’, is optimistic. He sees city governance as the model for a post-national, interdependent political landscape.

In his words, “The road to global democracy runs through cities”. It’s already happening. Mayors are meeting the challenges pragmatically and, by virtue of their semi-autonomous power base, are able to share these lessons with other mayors who are below-the-radar of national governments. By splicing out their city’s good genes, they can be recombined elsewhere to beneficial effect.

However, South African urbanist Edgar Pieterse is not so optimistic.

City leaders are not adequately representative or responsive. He argues for the reinvigoration of civil society to include the everyday concerns of marginalised people, especially of cities in the developing world.

Alessandra Orofino, based in Rio de Janeiro, has the tools to enable that engagement. She’s the compelling force behind Meu Rio, a digital platform for civic participation at grass root level.

Her tools are being used to air local grievances, rally support and change policy in Rio. Her battle cry is, “It’s our city, let’s fix it!”

These efforts tackle symptoms. They do not reconcile clashes between old infrastructure and new technologies, or between native and newly arrived citizens. Is there a more radical solution? Is there a circuit-breaker to halt the downward development spiral?

Building new charter cities

Paul Romer, an American economist, thinks there is. In his view, attempting to expand existing cities is doomed, especially in developing countries. Instead, he thinks we should build new charter cities.

Charter cities are cities that operate to their own set of special rules and have the unique quality of allowing experimentation by recombining good urban genes imported from more economically mature corners of the globe.

Modelled in part on Shenzhen in Southern China, his idea is that these experiments must be brand new, with the rules drawn up beforehand by the host country. That way, investors, companies, workers, and families actively opt-in to migrating there in preference to other cities.

The infrastructure and public services are planned for twenty-first century conditions. Opportunities for citizens are equal, and if the experiment works, the rules can be adopted across the country.

Of course, success is in the detail. Setting rules that reform poor governance is a tall order. But by matching the common experience to expert knowledge and integrating our findings with tech and good governance, perhaps we can walk the extra mile in citizens’ shoes – so that they don’t have to.

  • This post originally appeared on Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog – a platform that provides a glimpse into the future for curious readers.

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