Cities of the Past, Cities of the Future (By Michael Belinsky)

Why do cities exist? One theory holds that cities are more productive than less dense and smaller concentrations of people. The source of this productivity may result because urban concentration reduces transportation costs for goods and people. Or because proximity increases the flow of ideas. More people, more diversity, and a higher concentration means that any one person is bound to be more exposed to ideas and become – well – more cosmopolitan. This benefit can also come from the value of moving people across firms. Greater density should mean greater movement. These is just some of the theory of cities…

Now that we’ve rationalized their existence, it makes sense to ask – what is happening to cities? The answer, in short, is that cities growing in size and number. The UN predicts that the world’s urban population of 3.6 billion in 2011 will grow by 72% by 2050. And cities in less-developed economies will grow faster than cities in developed countries. China alone has 90 cities with over a million people. Those 90 cities contain 20% of China’s population.

This is the urban context in which numerous international declarations have been made regarding the fostering of sustainable cities throughout the world. The Rio+20 Issue Brief 5 describes those commitments that are time bound and actionable, according to its definitions. Some of them are very general, such as “achieve by the year 2000 substantial improvements in the efficiency of government services.” Others are slightly more concrete, such as ones focusing on access to drinking water for the urban slumdwellers.

This brief, like most briefs produced in preparation for the Rio+20 conference, is written in a detached technical tone that contains hints of criticism of the international agenda. When reviewing international agreements that pertain to urbanization, Brief 5 notes that many agreement clauses contain no time frame and no actionable set of items. It chooses to omit those clauses from its analysis. Its message is clear.

On the one hand, this brief serves as a conversation starter for the Rio+20 conference. On the other hand, the conference Secretary General, Mr. Sha Zukang, writes on his blog that his team is pushing to prepare before the conference 90% of the text of the political document that he plans to present as The Document that capstones the conference. At 90%, one wonders if the Brief should omit even the timely and actionable items on its list and focus on the biggest pain points of urbanization.

And what are those biggest pain points? If the international community could discuss and resolve only one item for its sustainable city agenda, what should it choose?

Perhaps the most important topic for urbanization – most of which is happening in cities that are in developing, rather than developed, countries – is how to learn the lessons of past urbanization and avoid those mistakes. How do we tap cheap labor without compromising on child labor laws and human dignity? How do we industrialize without polluting? How do we attract hardworking people from the countryside without creating slum-like conditions?

This may look like an agenda that expands the set of topics under discussion, rather than focusing it. But I think one orienting mechanism can be a focus on lessons from past mistakes – both the mistakes and the lessons are plentiful. And what better map for the future than a look at the past?

Michael Belinsky is a 2012 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Master in Public Policy Program.

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