State of the World 2007: Earth Facing Urban Future

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, January 10, 2007 (ENS) – Rapid and chaotic urbanization is taking a massive toll on human health and the environment, the Worldwatch Institute said today in its annual report on the state of the world. In 2008, half of the Earth’s population will live in cities, the first time in history that humans can be considered an urban species.


These children live in Soweto, South Africa, the most populous urban residential area in the country. (Photo courtesy USAID/Hope Worldwide)
How the world tackles the social and environmental challenges of urbanization, in particular the needs of the urban poor, will determine the future of humanity and the fate of the planet, according to the report by the U.S. research group.

"The global shift from rural to urban is the defining trend of our time," said Molly O'Meara Sheehan, project director of the Worldwatch report.

More than 60 million people are added to cities and suburbs every year and sometime next year more than half the world's population will live in cities.

And more than a third of the world's three billion city residents live in urban slums, where they lack clean water and sanitation.


Making the best of slum living in Bhilai, an industrial city in India's Chhattisgarh state. This mobile library built on a rickshaw in the shape of an orange serves workers' children. (Photo courtesy Janshala)
"These are places where every day is an intense struggle for survival," Sheehan said.

Current trends indicate the number of urban slum dwellers will increase some 500 million by 2030 unless global development priorities are reassessed.

"The international community has been too slow in recognizing the growth of urban poverty," Sheehan told reporters today at a press conference in Washington, DC. "Some continue to view the urban poor as a problem to be ignored at best or at worst pushed away."

The report calls for policymakers to address the "urbanization of poverty" by increasing investments in education, health care and infrastructure.

"If ever there was a time to act, it is now," according to Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of UN-HABITAT. In a foreword to the 251-page report, Tibaijuka warns that many cities are "environmentally unsustainable" and "rapidly becoming socially unsustainable."

Rio de Janeiro

Botafogo, a beachfront neighborhood on Guanabara Bay, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a city of about 5.6 million people. (Photo courtesy Peter & Jackie Main)
There is little doubt that the environmental problems facing cities are profound, including energy and food production, air pollution, transportation and waste disposal. But those challenges are providing fertile ground for new sustainable solutions, according to the report, and many solutions readily complement efforts to improve the lives of the urban poor.

"Cities are great centers of innovation and that is even more true today than it has been in the past," said Worldwatch Institute President Chris Flavin, who added that "necessities from food to energy are increasingly being produced by urban pioneers inside city limits."

The report says an estimated 800 million people are involved in urban farming and highlights a sewer project in the Pakistani city of Karachi that has linked hundreds of thousands of low income households.


Traffic jam in Karachi, Pakistan (Photo courtesy Ka-Neng Au)
It also cites a government program in Rizhao, China, that has enabled many residents to obtain solar water heaters and allowed officials to install solar powered traffic signals and street lights.

In addition, the report highlights a bus rapid transit system developed in the Brazilian city of Curitiba has inspired other cities in South America, the United States, Europe and Asia to follow suit.

Cities are also increasingly realizing that they are on the front lines of climate change, the report says, and that could provide momentum for a global cooperation on the daunting issue.

Of the 33 cities projected to have at least eight million residents by 2015, at least 21 are coastal cities that will have to contend with sea level rise from climate change.

"Cities are directly or indirectly responsible for the vast amount of the world's greenhouse gas emissions," said Janet Sawin, director of the Worldwatch Institute's energy and climate change program. "But many cities are now leading the way, going where their national governments and the international community has not."

green roof

A rooftop garden atop Chicago's City Hall improves air quality, conserves energy, reduces stormwater runoff and helps lessen the urban heat island effect. (Photo courtesy City of Chicago)
The report highlights actions by U.S. cities, including Chicago and New York, to increase their use of renewable energy and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as global efforts to encourage greener buildings.

The United States has "a vacuum on sustainability that is being filled by cities and states," said Peter Newman, a coauthor of the report and director of the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy in Australia.

The report also calls for a broad effort on the part of cities and nongovernmental organizations to gather and share information on local solutions to urban problems and for policymakers to ensure the urban poor have a voice in development decisions.

Urban development efforts must be "participatory and inclusive," said Her Royal Highness Princess Dana Firas of Jordan, a contributor to the report. "It is critical for the government to play a leading role, but government must engage other sectors and partners, and give citizens a genuine voice."