The Urbanization of the Globe: What it Means for Our Growing Cities

From time immemorial, cities have been the central gathering places of human life, from where the great ideas and movements of the world have sprouted. In this country, the beginnings of our independence fomented with the Boston Tea Party, while Philadelphia served as the home of the Constitutional Convention. The seeds of economic and financial power were sowed on the streets of New York City. Around the world, the great thinkers of the Renaissance assembled in Florence, the impressionist painters flocked to Paris, and the industrial revolution sparked in Birmingham England.

Hundreds of years later, great ideas and innovations are still sprouting in cities — but this time accompanied by a growth in urbanized life over the last several decades never before seen. For the first time in history, more people are living in cities than rural areas. And, this way of living is only going to continue: by 2050, the urban share of global population is projected to surpass 66 percent (up from 30 percent in 1950).

This trend to urbanization is even more dramatic beyond the borders of the United States. Take Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, which had a population of approximately 7.2 million in 2000, and is expected to rise to 24 million by 2030. And, eight times more Nigerians live in cities today than in 1975. Moreover, the metro areas of Tokyo, New York and Mexico City were the only metro areas in 1975 with at least 10 million people. Today, that list would include 31 such megacities — with 10 more to join by 2030 — all of which are outside the United States.

Cities are undergoing what Brookings Institution author Bruce Katz terms the “metropolitan revolution.” Financial capitals New York and London are transforming into major world tech hubs as new and innovative companies emerge within these cities. And, this shift is not exclusive to New York or London, as many cities are undergoing similar transformations driven by this global trend toward urbanization.

This wave of urban growth stems, in large part, from the mass adoption of the internet and interconnected technologies. Interestingly, many sociologists predicted years ago that the advent of such interconnectivity would enable people to live and work anywhere. But the practical result has been the opposite.

Indeed, in this new 21 st century economy, innovative workers seek one another to collaborate in building and developing new knowledge-based industries that are increasingly disrupting and dominating a rapidly evolving global economy. Bright, curious minds in the sciences and technology demand proximity in order to be more productive, more creative and further stimulated.

This need for collaboration has propelled millennials to move to urban areas in droves. But once they get there, they desire new open physical environments — such as incubators and shared work places — to enhance their collaborative efforts. Beyond work, a growing single population — one that now outnumbers married people in the United States — seek out other singles amid the myriad activities and diverse nightlife that only cities offer.

To spur growth and reinvention, cities themselves understand the need to attract and develop the necessary talent that is critical for building new companies, developing new industries and reshaping legacy industries. Pittsburgh has transformed itself from a steel town to one dominated by knowledge-based industries like robotics by relying on Carnegie Mellon University to help develop the talent and skills for these new industries.

This growing urbanization has meant that cities have become the principal drivers of economic growth in the United States. Seattle has become home to a large technology industry, with both Microsoft and Amazon — two of today’s most valuable companies — located there. Qualcomm, a leading semiconductor and telecommunications company with over $20 billion in annual revenue from chip making, is headquartered in San Diego.

Indeed, with 65 percent of the U.S. population now living in cities and generating 75 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, such urban life increasingly dominates the national landscape.

This rapid urbanization is not without a cost and it places great stress on our cities. Increased population growths are causing supply and demand constraints, which in turn are driving pricing pressure. The demand for available housing exceeds the supply, resulting in higher prices. New housing units have not kept pace with population growth since the end of the great recession. San Francisco may be the most extreme example of this imbalance among major cities — new jobs there have outpaced additional homes by a ratio of 8 to 1 since 2010. The housing supply is further checked with local activists fighting to keep restrictive zoning laws and worrying about gentrification in the city.

Beyond housing, cities are facing myriad other challenges. High on this list are transportation, homelessness and rising inequality.

Local transportation systems have simply not been able to keep pace with growing local populations. New Yorkers endure an overcrowded, aging and slowing transportation network including a subway system designed 100 years ago for a fraction of the now 8.6 million people living there. Moreover, like in other cities, rising housing costs near job sites mean that residents are getting pushed to the outskirts and contending with longer and more costly commutes to get to work.

Homelessness is also on the rise in many cities. With rising housing costs, residents are being priced out of housing faster than local officials can tackle the problem. In Los Angeles, in the last six years, the number of those living in the streets and shelters has increased 75 percent — to approximately 55,000 from about 32,000.

Lastly, as skilled workers at growing tech companies earn more than their counterparts in legacy industries, cities are witnessing rising inequality. At a recent US News briefing with mayors from cities and towns across the country, mayors discussed how their constituents raise concerns that they are no longer in a position where they can move up the economic ladder. Such citizens see that the economic pie is growing but are frustrated that they cannot participate in this expansion. For these reasons, many of the mayors expressed the view that the issue of “class” has become more top of mind than issues of race.

The problems facing the largest cities have created an opening for smaller regional towns that have started to attract those seeking a higher quality of life. Des Moines, Iowa, for instance, with a population of approximately 215,000, enjoyed GDP growth of 2.9 percent in 2017. And, in their recent book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” James and Deborah Fallows reveal how towns throughout the country like Ajo, Arizona or Burlington, Vermont have successfully reversed years of industrial decay and reinvented their communities by rethinking uses for old mills and factories.

Some leading urban thinkers believe that this flight to urbanization has been inconsistent, with some cities gaining and others falling behind. Professor and author Richard Florida points to 14 big cities that lost population in 2015-2016, with Chicago losing the most people. He cites rising housing prices and increases in violent crime as causes for these declines. His research suggests that low-density suburban areas — albeit starting with lower baselines — have started to become the fastest growing areas.

Some cities are reinventing themselves by incorporating new technologies including sensors to improve city life. Within these “smart” cities, local officials are seeking to mine all types of data to make cities safer, healthier and more efficient — the beginning of changing the way cities operate.

In the past few years, local officials have experimented with technology and data to help improve almost all aspects of urban life, including income, traffic, fires, illnesses, power usage, parking and pollution. For example, Kansas City, Missouri uses video from sensors to gather information about traffic and parking — and then makes the video available to the public. To clean up the streets in Los Angeles, officials use mobile data collection and video to track illegal garbage dumping and identify abandoned bulky trash items.

The advent of autonomous vehicles — with likely mass adoption in the next decade or so — may well have another dramatic effect on the layout of cities. As such autonomous vehicles will not require parking in central areas, the land currently being used for parking can be repurposed for other uses such as green space or even additional housing.

No doubt, urban life is increasingly defining the future of this country. At a time when we face gridlock in our nation’s capital, cities must continue to serve as our core workshops to test and implement new ideas and innovative programs within this new 21 st century economy. For all the various urban issues with which we must grapple, cities remain our greatest economic drivers to create jobs and raise income and living standards.

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The Urbanization of the Globe: What it Means for Our Growing Cities originally appeared on usnews.com