[SCMP Column] Cities Steer Man's Future

July 31, 2017

As you read this, I am probably swimming in Lake Shuswap at the top of the Okanagan Valley in British Colombia, half way between Vancouver and Calgary. The expedition is in part aimed at escaping one of the broader truths of the past decades – that one of the strongest forces driving us forward today urbanisation.

I am proving two other key forces at the same time: globalisation allows me within the comparative blink of an eye to uplift from the teeming high rises of Hong Kong or Toronto or Vancouver and drop into a nature that has been manicured a little, but has seen few changes in millennia: and digitalisation, that allows me to sit with a laptop in the middle of remote glacial lakes in the Canadian Rockies and still communicate with you.

From quintessentially urban Hong Kong with just under 7,000 people per square mile to the Okanagan is a big leap back towards hunting, gathering times, with maybe 8 people per square mile even today, and a lot less a few decades ago. None of the things we city folk take for granted – running water, hot water, electricity, 7-Eleven – can be taken for granted. It is valuable to be reminded of what life before cities was all about.

Because today, for the first time in human history, more people live in cities than live outside them. About 54 per cent of the world’s population live urban lives today, and the UN says it will be 66 per cent by 2050. From 1950 when a modest 740m people lived in cities, we find cities have become home to 3.9 billion people.

Some claim that Rome was in 133 BC the first city in the world to reach a 1m population. Not just the word “city”, but also “citizen” and “civilisation” come from the Latin roots civis and civitas (which means city state). But cities of such size were a rarity until very recently. London was the first modern-day city to pass the 1m mark in the early 1800s, while New York only reached the one million mark in 1847. Today, we have more than 500 cities worldwide with a population above 1m, and we have around 28 that have passed the 10m mark.

Cities have come to dominate our economies. MacKinsey has estimated that 600 urban areas account for 60 per cent of world GDP. Drill down a little, and the evidence is even clearer. In Korea, Seoul and Incheon together account for 47 per cent of the country’s GDP. In Holland, Rotterdam and Amsterdam account for 40 per cent. In the Philippines, the Manila metropolitan area accounts for 37 per cent of the country’s economy. Tokyo – the world’s biggest city with a population estimated at more than 37m – makes 34 per cent of Japan’s GDP.

A number of cities today have economies bigger than substantial countries. The economies of Tokyo and New York are as big as those of Canada, Spain and Turkey.  Paris’s economy is bigger than either the Philippines or Colombia.

But most of the burgeoning big cities of today are not places you will have heard of. Leading the fastest-growing list are Beihai in China, Ghaziabad and Surat in India, Sana’a in war-torn Yemen and Bamako in Mali. Of the top 500 cities worldwide, over 100 are in China and 58 in India. The US and Europe lag with 45 and 34 respectively. The future of cities and civilisation is no longer with the world’s traditional centres of economic and political power.

Linked with this explosion of cities, mostly in Asia, is the much discussed, and dreadfully underfunded, demand for new infrastructure. Think tanks predict spending needs of anything from US$30 to 40 trillion between now and 2040 on railways, bridges, ports, airports, water, power and telecoms and the internet. In China that means more than 30 new mass transit systems (and a further 39 approved for construction). It also explains the priority being given to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to work alongside development banks like the World Bank and ADB, and to ambitious plans developing around the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

Cities are the drivers of social and political changes that are at the heart of many of the world’s stresses and divisions today. First, by their nature, they are immigrant melting pots that are bringing cultures together, and driving international tolerance and cooperation. They are home to Teresa May’s “citizens of nowhere”. Contrast that with traditional rural communities that tend to be mono-cultural, provincial, xenophobic, and in trade terms protectionist.

Note how London was the only part of the UK that clearly in in large majority voted not to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum. Note also how Trump’s fiercely loyal political power-base is significantly rural.

Cities offer the best of futures, and the worst, depending on how they are developed. By bringing people together in so concentrated a fashion, we are able to build highly efficient communications, telecoms, transport, water supplies, sewerage, energy, health and education services. No wonder cities are dynamic hubs for innovation, culture and creativity.

Managed badly, cities can create nightmares that are unimaginable in most rural corners of our planet. Think only of Sana’a in blighted Yemen, with cholera spreading through the war-torn population, or the insanitary mess at the heart of so many of the larger cities in countries across Africa.

Cities also seem to be a marker for the widening inequalities so much at the heart of stresses linked with globalisation – both in the divisions between cities and rural areas, and within cities themselves, where inequalities are so much more viscerally visible.

While I escape for a brief moment in the remote backwaters of British Columbia, safe in the knowledge that I have a civilised and comfortable city life to return to, it is important to remember that our futures are clearly being made in cities. It is there that we will make them better or worse. Now let me go back to my gentle swim in Lake Sushwap.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own. 
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