How can today’s megacities prepare for the rapid urbanization ahead?
4 minute read
Nowadays, the speed at which cities grow has become unprecedented and it will not be slowing down any time soon. In fact, the UN estimates that by 2050 about 6 billion people could be living in cities – around 70% of the world’s total population.
What does this mean for the future? To start with, the appearance of more and more megacities. These truly gargantuan cities, which at minimum boast over 10 million inhabitants, are one mankind’s greatest creations as they offer the perfect environment for increased wealth, productiveness and freedom.
However, megacities also come with very big costs: overcrowding, pollution, filth and slums, which will only grow worse as more and more people migrate from rural areas to urban ones. Many of today’s the fastest growing cities are in the developing world, especially in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, and they are already struggling.
Mumbai, for instance, is home to nearly 20 million people, many of whom live in poor conditions in part due to poor urban planning. This is most visible at the outskirts of the city, where the population concentrates in disorganized settlements lacking basic services and desperate living conditions. These “slums” usually have no electricity, no running water and no sewers.
This happens, because generally speaking, the infrastructure of today’s megacities is integrated after the city grows, leading to the sale and acquisition of plots of land with no real thought of where main roads should run through or even where schools could be set up. To combat this issue, cities like Ahmedabad are taking the opposite approach.
Here, planners identify wide areas to build new suburbs and requisition a portion of all the land from owners, setting it aside for new roadways and facilities, and handing them back reduced portions of their original land which they can now sell for more because they can be served by better facilities. And while there are arguments for and against an approach like this, evidence shows that it works much better than anything else has so far.
But for good urban planning to work, these cities need a functioning transport system. This has become essential, and there is no greater example than Los Angeles. With more than 12 million residents, the city is notorious not only for its traffic jams and the air pollution they cause, but also for the fact that no change implemented so far has managed to reduce the problem.
With cautionary tales like this in mind, the Finnish startup Whim is proposing a new solution, one that focuses on using existing modes of transport more effectively rather than building expensive new ones. It relies on an app that combines every available mode of transport to select the best route across the city, which makes it a less expensive and easily available option for emerging megacities.
While urban planning and transportation are two of the main challenges for megacities in the years ahead, none of them compare to the problem of waste. By 2050, total waste generation is expected to double in South Asia and triple in Sub-Saharan Africa, increasing the release of greenhouse gases and other chemicals that can contaminate water supplies. And while the solution is right there in front of us, for megacities, it only works if it’s done in a massive scale and with a high degree of sophistication.
With this in mind, cities like San Francisco are taking recycling to a new level, using technology that can change how megacities reduce the environmental impact of waste. A noteworthy example is Recycling Central. Recycling Central is a recycling megastructure that uses conveyor belts and magnets, as well as optical and robotic sorters, to ensure that San Francisco diverts more waste from landfills than any other major city in America.
Then, there’s also composting. This is another practice that is also receiving the large-scale treatment as the city collects organic waste across all areas, turns it into compost and sends it back to farms. This compost is created with the help of carefully regulated technology that helps produce a nutrient rich result that can be the sold to farms and vineyards throughout the state, offsetting some of the costs.
All these solutions make sense and provide a glimpse into how megacities could be managed in the future, but more than that, they showcase that as with so many of the challenges ahead, the seeds for the solutions needed are already being sown all over the world. It is their very size that might just prove to be their biggest asset.
If you would like to get a more in depth look at how should the challenges caused by rapid urbanization be handled in the world ahead, please check out the companion film by The Economist and learn more about the world ahead.