When I ask whether urbanization is a positive force, I am really asking two questions: Is the standard of living higher for people who live in cities? And, is it a positive force for the environment? Urbanization can lead to economic development, and, if done well, can help reduce the effects of climate change by concentrating populations and infrastructure and freeing up rural lands to be reclaimed by natural ecosystems.
However, if urbanization is executed poorly, no good can come of it. And there are clear economic and political barriers that prevent us from reaping the environmental benefits of successful urbanization, namely pollution, poverty and political instability.
China, whose urbanization has been coupled with industrialization over the past 80 or so years, has experienced unprecedented levels of air pollution, which contributes to 1.6 million deaths annually, according to one study. In Mauritania, 42 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line, and this precondition fuels a cycle of “booming but dysfunctional cities.” Lastly, Niamey, Niger, is known for its public corruption, and financial mismanagement of the city has increased terrorist activity while decreasing investment and quality of life. The lack of security for property rights, and the exploitation of natural resources has harmed both the economy and ecology. All these issues lead to negative urban environments, and while overcoming them is difficult, it’s not impossible.
It’s clear that several conditions are necessary for effective, positive urbanization — that which works for people, the economy and the environment.
A growing metropolitan area must have access to clean, abundant energy. China faces this issue, and has decided to invest in nuclear power, a technology with a track record of providing reliable energy with little pollution.
A city must have systems to combat poverty and disease. Following the 2013 garment factory collapse in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi government reformed many systems to ensure safer working conditions for their largest industry. While imperfect, the reforms — monitored worker welfare and attempted to alleviate the worst problems in the developing economy — led to the continued growth of the economy and nation as a whole.
A city must have a stable government, a strong police force and an efficient justice system. International aid, advisors and peacekeeping efforts can go a long way — as was the case in Côte d’Ivoire, where U.N. peacekeeping efforts left the country stable and with a strong legal infrastructure.
Lastly, the city must respect ecosystems in place, and promote interaction and protection. Berlin’s approach is to reintegrate the city into the watershed by making it a “sponge city.” By redesigning how Berlin interacts with water, city planners are creating a better urban environment for humans, plants and animals. Rooftop gardens, moss and other plants are being reintroduced to the city which reduces both runoff and the urban heat island effect. Greenery make us happier, so a greener city will not only mean a more eco-friendly city, but also a higher quality of life for everyone.
Urbanization is a positive force, when clean energy solutions are employed, poverty-combatting policies are in place, the political environment is stable and the environment is viewed as a partner. People will be happier to live in these types of cities, and we must keep these principles in mind if we wish to see productive, healthy urban areas.