The Commonwealth Association of Planners ( is currently doing some work on the State of Commonwealth Cities. Using UN data we are predicting a 73% increase in the numbers living in Commonwealth urban areas between 2000 and 2016. It is a quite staggering figure.

Part of the surge of urban growth comes from rural to urban migration. For generations development agencies wrongly assumed that by promoting rural community and economic development they could hold the rural people on the land. The harsh truth is that in the developing world, the urban areas offer many more opportunities than the countryside. While the urban slums can be a killer in terms of risk of disease, especially for under fives, the cities offer employment opportunities, especially for women, and particularly in the informal economy.

However, it is not just rural to urban movement that is swelling the cities. They have a demographic profile that almost guarantees growth for the next generation. This ensures that large scale, rapid urban growth is not going to magically go away. How we manage it in the next 20 years is as vital to the planet as how we manage the inter-connected issue of climate change.
The problem is fairly simple – but very hard to solve. Most of the growth of the world’s urban areas is made up by poor people in the developing world. High rise housing, with its dependency on electricity and sophisticated building technologies, is not affordable. Thus the bulk of the new housing (the major land use in any city) will be low rise (albeit with high rates of occupancy). This means cities will spread and the land they will spread on to is likely to be currently in agricultural use or forests. Unless agricultural yields can be dramatically increased (and the threat of climate change suggests that in nett terms this will be difficult) then we can ill afford to lose agricultural land if we are to feed a growing population. Similarly the loss of forests runs counter to strategies for managing CO2 emissions. Add in the effects of sea level rise, salination of land and underground water supplies, and the impacts of extreme weather events on the poor who already tend to live in the moist hazardous locations, and the future begins to look apocalyptic.
In addition, the spread of the urban area together with increased use of motorised vehicles is likely to lead to further deterioration in air quality in the cities and to massive traffic congestion, again making worse a situation that is already bad. For example the Mayor of Dar Es Salaam told me that it had taken him one hour to fly to Nairobi, but then another 3 hours to get from the airport to the UN complex, a trip that in the early traffic-free hours of the morning takes about 30 minutes.    
The Baltic Sea countries, and especially Scandinavia, appear very attract globally in this picture. They have lots of land, high living standards in global terms, and may experience longer growing seasons as the earth gets warmer. However, as IC members know only too well, many remote rural areas are already struggling with demographic decline and loss of traditional jobs. In this they mirror in extreme terms the position of Europe as a whole.      
This is a crisis that none of us can turn away from. Better use of land and less energy intensive patterns of movement are necessary in the rich countries, and new thinking is needed in the global South. Smart urban management is needed, using incentives, effective, equitable and enforceable regulation of development, and life-cycle management of assets and infrastructure.

Seen from this perspective, the recent G20 meeting in London, while lauded for getting some international agreement on tackling the economic recession, must be deemed a missed opportunity. When will the economists, bankers and governments get it? Fixing the economy is a necessary but not sufficient way ahead. Unless we also fix the environment and global inequality economic recovery will not be secure. Similarly, when the climate change summit is held in Copenhagen later this year, an environmental deal at governmental level in isolation will not be enough, even if it can be achieved. The new practical politics is a politics of place, or to put it another way… “It’s the cities, stupid”.  The UN Habitat Global Campaign is based on partnerships with local and regional government and with civil society bodies. Might IC have a role to play?