Warning issued over world’s ability to meet urban population boom

A new global survey warns that cities and their leaders across the globe are unprepared for the expected population increase in urban areas.

Researchers at Cornell University undertook a detailed survey of city leaders which found they are struggling in the face of multiple challenges including rising inequality, extreme heat and flood risks exacerbated by climate change, and a need to rebalance transportation systems that overly favour private automobiles.

The research captured data from 241 cities worldwide. It revealed many cities in developing countries face enormous challenges in providing core urban services that support economic growth, as they have very limited fiscal resources. While in developed countries, large numbers of urban leaders report land constraints, high housing costs, and a mismatch between available jobs and residents’ skills.

“The future of the world is urban and many cities are unprepared for the urban population increase that will continue over the next three decades,” said Victoria Beard, lead researcher and director of the Cornell Mui Ho Centre for Cities housed in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. “This survey gives us a perspective we’ve never had before: a first-ever glimpse of what city leaders around the world see as their greatest challenges, where they will spend precious municipal resources, and underscores where cites have an opportunity to work together across diverse geographies on priority areas they have in common.”

Those leaders universally agreed climate change has intensified exposure to extreme heat, water scarcity and flooding, with 43% of leaders in developing cities agreeing climate change has intensified water scarcity. A little over half the cities in developing countries reported having climate mitigation (57%) or adaptation plans (51%). Only 6% of developing-country city leaders (and just 2–3% in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean) reported no climate change impacts, compared with 16% in developed countries.

A majority of all leaders (66%) agreed there is too much emphasis on private automobiles and that cities should support more active and sustainable urban mobility.

The challenges facing city leaders in developing regions are acute, especially on the economic front. While approximately 82% of leaders in developed cities consider their city’s economic condition good or excellent, only 49% of leaders in cities in developing countries say the same.

The research warned that cities in developing countries will not realise the full benefits of urbanisation because they lack core urban infrastructure, such as roads and public transportation systems as well as drinking water and wastewater infrastructure systems. City leaders in developing countries said their top three infrastructure priorities are wastewater infrastructure (50%), roads (44%), and public transportation (40%).

In developed-country cities, 87% of leaders thought their drinking water infrastructure was good or excellent, but only 46.5% in developing countries said the same. The top challenge identified in providing drinking water—cited by a quarter of city leaders in developing countries, and 54% in Sub-Saharan Africa—was the need to extend piped water to all households.

In terms of the recovery from the impact of COVID city leaders said that their jurisdictions are returning to normal. The vast majority of cities are back to normal or almost back to normal. Only 17% of city leaders in developed cities say they are not back to normal (7% in developing cities).