The world is rapidly urbanizing. The UN Population Division estimates that during this decade half the world’s population will be urban. As indicated by Redman and Jones (2005):
“[C]ities occupy 4% or less of the world’s terrestrial surface, yet they are home to almost half the global population, consume close to three-quarters of the world’s natural resources, and generate three-quarters of its pollution and wastes. Moreover, the UN estimates that virtually all net global population and economic growth over the next 30 years will occur in cities, leading to a doubling of current populations. This growth will require unprecedented investment in new infrastructure and create undreamed of challenges for political and social institutions.” (page 1)
Urbanization is particularly rapid in the developing world, where globalization and major economic restructuring in countries like China, and the lack of rural employment opportunities in many African and Asian countries, is provoking an exodus from rural areas to towns and cities. Although much of the focus has been on the growth, infrastructural and environmental problems of megacities (those over 10 million in population), the reality is that much urbanization is projected to take place in the small to medium sized cities, and not just large or “primate” cities. This poses numerous challenges to the environment and health, ranging from conversion of cropland, forest and wetlands to urban “built up” areas (and the consequent loss of ecosystem services); adequate provision of improved water and sanitation, particularly in informal settlements; waste removal; and air pollutant emissions from industry and transportation.
Viewed more positively, urbanization also presents a very real opportunity to reduce humanity’s impact on the biosphere through economies of scale and concentration of environmental, transportation, sanitation and health services. According to Tannerfeldt and Ljung (2006):
“Our rapid conversion to an urban society presents large challenges everywhere, even if the symptoms take many different forms in different countries. Many view urbanization as negative and threatening, since it is easy to point to growing slum areas, environmental degradation and social gaps. But cities contribute to development, and urbanization is both a requirement for – and a result of – economic, cultural and social development. The aim is to promote sustainable cities where all citizens have opportunities to improve their living conditions.” (page 5)
Thus, developing country societies are confronted with both significant risks and great opportunities. A useful research agenda exploring both the risks and potential of urban areas in the context of global environmental change has been produced by the International Human Dimensions Programme of Global Environmental Change (IHDP) (Sanchez-Rodriguez et al. 2005).
The overall purpose of the meeting is to better prepare for inevitable urban growth and to inform policy and programmes to improve the situation of the urban poor as well as to protect the environment through a better understanding of urban population-development-environment (PDE) linkages. This meeting will bring together scientists who have conducted research in individual cities (or perhaps comparative work on a number of cities) exploring these linkages, and who have sought to offer concrete solutions to the problems of rapid urban growth in developing regions. It will seek to extract from the studies recommendations for improved urban management and governance. Papers will be solutions-oriented, seeking to identify the leverage points and approaches necessary to meet the housing and service needs of growing populations while fostering greater urban environmental sustainability. Target audiences for the results will be urban managers (mayors, planners, city officials, and agency staff) and other practitioners and researchers addressing these linkages.
Redman, Charles and Nancy S. Jones. 2005. “The Environmental, Social and Health Dimensions of Urban Expansion.” Population and Environment 26(6): 505-520.
Sanchez-Rodriguez, Roberto, Karen C. Seto, David Simon, William Solecki, Frauke Kraas, Gregor Laumann. 2005. Science Plan: Urbanization and Global Environmetnal Change. Bonn, Germany: IHDP.
Tannerfeldt, Göran and Per Ljung. 2006. More Urban, Less Poor. London: Earthscan.