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Urban development

Background: the age of cities

View from the TV tower in Brasilia, Brazil

The new millennium heralded the start of the age of cities. For the first time in the history of mankind the majority of the world’s population is now living in cities.

Whereas in past centuries natural population growth primarily occurred in rural regions, today that growth is mainly registered in cities. In the mid-20th century, 30 per cent of the population lived in the world’s urban centres. Today that share stands at more than 50 per cent, and is continuing to rise. By 2050 it is expected that 80 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities.

This growth is occurring almost exclusively in urban conurbations and informal settlements in developing countries and emerging economies. Almost 900 million people currently live in informal settlements, a figure which is growing by an extra 180,000 people worldwide every day. In Latin America the rate of urbanisation is already over 80 per cent; by 2030 that rate will rise to more than 50 per cent in both Asia and Africa. In contrast, the big metropolises in industrialised countries are expanding more slowly or are even showing a decline in population.

Traffic in Colombo, Sri Lanka

According to United Nations estimates, by 2030, 60 per cent of all city dwellers worldwide will be below the age of 18. The causes of urban growth have changed. In the past, the key factors behind urbanisation were rural out-migration and industrial development; today, the main reason is natural growth of the population already living in cities.

By 2020, it is expected that there will be 27 megacities in the world, that is cities with a population of more than 10 million. Only four of these will not be in a developing country.

The more the urban population grows, the more the potentials and challenges of global development will be focussed on cities. This is the case, for example, whether it be in terms of poverty reduction, the integration of disadvantaged groups, economic growth or achieving climate and development targets. The global trend towards urbanisation calls for adapted and sustainable urban settlement strategies.


Risks associated with urbanisation

Growth in cities in developing countries goes hand in hand with a rapid increase in poverty. In many slums, environmental and living conditions are extremely poor. Usually, rights of settlement and land ownership here are not clearly regulated and there is often a shortage of suitable housing.

For those people living in densely populated informal settlements, access to drinking water is lacking, as is sanitation. Often there are no sewerage or organised waste disposal systems – with serious consequences for the population’s health. A lack of alternatives means that informal settlements often spring up in highly vulnerable locations, such as on slopes, making them particular susceptible to the threats posed by climate change.

Large parts of the mostly young population in slums are insufficiently qualified and have no access to the formal labour market or educational facilities. This encourages the growth of the informal economy where there is only limited opportunity to earn money. The resulting lack of prospects is often accompanied by a rise in violence and conflicts.

In many big cities in developing countries, there is a growing spatial divide between rich areas with good infrastructure and poor areas in which there is extreme social, political and economic exclusion. This holds considerable potential for conflict and is also robbing cities of their creative and economic opportunities.


Climate change: primary causes and victims

A crowd of people in the centre of Jakarta, Indonesia, on a car-free Sunday

This – often unchecked – urban growth poses further risks. The rapid growth in the population is accompanied by a rise in motorised traffic. The excessive strain placed on urban transport networks leads to congestion, increased noise, exhaust and particulate emissions as well as a greater risk of accidents occurring. Furthermore, soils and water become contaminated and more and more agricultural land is used for building, thereby jeopardising the supply of food to urban dwellers.

Given their high water, energy and resource needs for trade, households and transportation, cities now contribute disproportionately to the consumption of available resources, to rising carbon dioxide emissions and, as a result, to global warming. Today, cities are responsible for producing 80 per cent of all waste and more than 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases. In this regard, cities are not just a primary cause of climate change; the fact that they are particularly exposed to the risk of disasters also makes them victims of this phenomenon.


Opportunities created by urbanisation

Besides the numerous negative impacts of urbanisation, it also holds huge opportunities in terms of sustainable development. The increased degree of communication and contact with other human beings which is characteristic of urban life creates a favourable environment for devising new ideas and ways of solving regional and global problems.

Cities are centres of innovation, education and employment, business and culture, of local self-government and liberal democratic convictions, as well as of civil society and political development. The high population density allows cities to combat poverty effectively, for example through educational initiatives and employment promotion schemes, or by providing access to infrastructure.

Well-run cities are able to mobilise this potential, initiate necessary changes in urban management and governance and trigger changes in behaviour together with their citizens. Equitable participation and active citizenship are vital factors in this respect, as are public institutions which operate effectively and act with an eye to the future.

Cities are the engines driving many economies. With access to labour resources, infrastructure and institutions, cities provide the economy with an environment which enables sustainable growth. In many countries, the contribution made by cities to gross domestic product is as much as 80 per cent. Countries with a high per capita income usually have more productive centres, while the world’s poorest countries have the lowest rates of urbanisation.


An important role to play in climate protection

Construction site for a new subway line in Delhi, India

Cities also have an important role to play when it comes to environmental progress and climate protection. Eco-friendly urban development can contribute significantly to the responsible use of resources, for instance through environmentally compatible local public transport, resource-efficient cycles or forward-looking energy concepts. International and national climate protection targets are implemented at city and local level.

Under Sustainable Development Goal 11 of the 2030 Agenda, the international community has made a pledge to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by 2030.


What German development cooperation is doing

German development cooperation seizes on the potential inherent in cities, promoting a broad spectrum of measures ranging from individual projects to strengthen civil society at local level to supporting governments in drawing up integrated strategies and national programmes. Through twinning arrangements and project partnerships, German municipalities also support sustainable urban development in developing countries, for example in the areas of municipal services of general interest, local climate protection or citizen involvement.

Participatory urban development calls for local self-government and the opportunity to participate in political processes. Targeted support is provided to civil society and business to enable their active involvement. Social development and local employment programmes open up economic prospects for the urban population.

Providing needs-based infrastructure and social services, upgrading and modernising informal settlements, and safeguarding tenure contribute to an improvement in living conditions and also create legal certainty and planability. Furthermore, German development cooperation backs environmentally friendly urban development and climate protection measures at municipal level. The guiding principles for German activities in this field are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG 11 on urban development, which have been defined within the framework of the 2030 Agenda.

German development cooperation always pays particular attention to promoting good governance at local level. Through participation and responsible, democratically legitimate city councils, cities are to develop strategic guidance on and approaches to sustainable development. To achieve this, they need to provide the necessary legal and financial bases.


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