The future of seven billion

Camaren Peter

The world is now inhabited by seven billion people. It is not the only salient statistic about our rapidly urbanising planet

Future_7_billionIn 1804, the world population reached one billion. In October 2011 it reached seven billion—seven billion people waking every day in a Mexican wave salute to the sun. “This global milestone is both a great opportunity and a great challenge,” declared the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in a campaign aimed at renewing the global commitment for a healthy and sustainable world for all. More than half of the world’s seven billion people live in cities: in the era of the city, the global vision of a fair and equal world seems further away than ever. The numbers contained in a UNFPA fact sheet say so.

Around 97% of the world’s population growth occurs in less developed countries, while fertility and growth rates in developed countries are either tapering or declining as the role of women in society changes. By 2050 the global population will number nine billion, with most of the extra two billion people living in cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Fifty years ago, one in three people lived in cities; by 2045 two out of three people will live in them. Staggering projections have been made for the period spanning from 2009 to 2050: African urban populations will triple from 399-million to 1.2-billion; Asian urban populations will double from 1.7 to 3.4-billion; Latin America and the Caribbean will increase from 462 to 648-million, while European urban populations will increase more slowly, from 531 to 582-million; North America’s urban population will rise from 285 to 404-million. Undeniably, cities will play a key role in the shaping of the societies of the future.

In the developing world, cities face the pervasive challenges of slum urbanisation. Although the proportion of urban slum-dwellers has declined from 39% to 33% in the decade following 2000, the actual number of slum-dwellers is still increasing. By 2050 city dwellers will number the entire global population count of 2004. With the larger share of these people living in cities of the developing world, will slum settlements and informality continue to grow?

How will the least developed countries and cities of the world cope with this dramatic increase in population numbers, and the densely concentrated demand that results from them residing in cities?

Since 1990, the proportion of people living in hunger has declined, due to improved living standards in East Asia, but the total number of hungry people now hovers at around one billion. Inequality is still increasing. Fifty years ago, 70% of all income went to the richest 20% of people living on the planet. In 2005, the income of the richest 20% had risen to 77%, while the poorest 20% experienced a decline from 2.3% just 50 years ago, to 1.5% in 2005. In excess of 1.2-billion people on the planet are between the ages of ten and 19, and 88% of them live in developing countries. Youth unemployment is three times higher than the global average for adults. Millions of these young people are homeless or live without the support of their families.

Will the global urban divide persist, as is warned in UN Habitat’s State of the World’s Cities Report 2011/12? Is it true that the urban divide mirrors the same failings as the global divide? Is this the meaning of poly-crisis, a crisis that cuts across scales, sectors and institutions? Or has a narrative been constructed around these numbers that underestimates our adaptability and ingenuity, presuming the worst for lack of imagination of what kind of future we can construct?

We cannot answer these questions with absolute certainty, but we can start by painting a picture of the world today and extrapolating different plausible futures from that understanding. These numbers do not tell the whole story, and they are not predictors of a dystopian global or urban future. The future is always unknowable. Even though we can project a multiplicity of possible scenarios, the future keeps its secrets close to its chest.

However, it is indisputable that the numbers, courtesy of the UNFPA, reveal large concerns about our current sustainability. It is in our interest as a society to acknowledge this. We will be unable to move into a more equitable global future without adequately acknowledging the challenges that we face today.

How will the least developed countries and cities of the world cope with this dramatic increase in population numbers, and the densely concentrated demand that results from them residing in cities? How will all these people feed, clothe, bathe, educate, recreate, earn, communicate, fall in love, procreate, share and compete? Will climate change render energy, food production and agro-ecological systems defunct? Will ecosystems buckle under the dual strain of increasing demand, climate change and ecosystem degradation? Will the faltering global economy strain to breaking point and collapse entirely? Cities are places where these interests converge and concentrate. Will the city of the future be fraught with even more dispute and contestation over its spaces and infrastructures? How will we survive our nine-billion selves in 2050?

The questions quickly multiply. How can we visualise the future we face? How will resources flow and what role will cities play in the mediation, transfer and distribution of resources? Will the city continue on a global trajectory of accumulation, where the city organism acts as an octopus does, stretching its sticky tentacles into every home and every crevice of the earth, sea and air? Will urban growth be inclusive of all urban citizens, regardless of class, race, ethnicity, migrant status, gender, sexuality and the like? Will cities continue to be characterised by priority access to infrastructures (for example, along nodal and corridor development zones), adding to the existing legacy of uneven growth across the cityscapes and regions of the world?

How can we can shape the future through our infrastructure choices? Infrastructures mediate material flows—by which I mean goods, data, information, energy, water, waste, people, nutrient flows and so on. Infrastructure choices, however, are social as well as material choices. How will these infrastructure choices meet the multiple needs of urban societies of the future? Should the public or private sector guide these choices, or what balance must be struck between the two? Is it business-as-usual, or business-unusual? Or is it business at all?

Again, we cannot answer all these questions with absolute certainty. What is clear, however, is that a focus on the interstitial is required, in other words, on that which connects and distributes rather than disconnects and accumulates. We need to understand infrastructure as more than just physical systems that mediate the transfer of materials; we need to understand how socio-cultural factors and behaviours meet these infrastructures. As Abdou Maliq Simone puts it, we need to explore the idea of “people as infrastructure”. A dual understanding is required: of the dynamic inter-relationships between social infrastructure and physical infrastructure; we need to understand how these relationships converge to produce systemic effects in different local contexts.

Realising this dual focus will require new ways of thinking and doing. Urban theorists and practitioners hold the keys to a new world: it is difficult to predict what kind of future they will ultimately unlock. Will it be a world where more of the same urban development continues, or will new innovations be actualised in the urban fabric that guide us towards a more equitable, inclusive urban environment, ushering in a different kind of world from the one we live in today? Only time will tell.

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