Cities 101: Why cities matter (Part I)

GoCar’s driving vision is to create sustainable cities by transforming urban mobility. Cities 101, a series by Yan Teh, seeks to contextualise this vision within wider local and global urban perspectives. Part I makes the case that cities deserve our rapt and urgent attention.

In February 2018, 23,000 people from every corner of the Earth gathered under one roof in Kuala Lumpur. Behind the throngs of police and airport-style scanners, what was going on? A concert? A football match? A political rally? A clue lay in the heavy presence of guards clad in powder blue uniform, averaging six foot tall. These towering men and women patrolling the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre were United Nations security officers.

Ensconced within the bastion of security was the UN’s ninth World Urban Forum, a biennial conference that puts a spotlight on cities. Inside the sprawling complex, an energetic former three-term mayor from the Philippines – in her mid-seventies! – passionately advocated democratic governance, whilst a Hong Kong architect earnestly explained how he redesigned a neighbourhood park together with elderly residents. Meanwhile, a team from Sweden employed virtual reality to workshop community-driven development solutions; and an Austrian company presented their burgeoning low-cost alternative to subway systems – urban cable cars. Beneath soaring ceilings, the atmosphere was convivial and anticipatory.

La Paz cable car
Above: Mi Teleférico is an aerial cable car urban transit system in Bolivia. Having overcome the challenges of a mountainous terrain, it forms the backbone of the public transportation system for La Paz and El Alto. (Image: Dan Lundberg)

Considered the world’s premier conference on urban issues, the World Urban Forum attracts stakeholders from every level of city-making: city and municipal governments; non-governmental organisations and researchers; urban planners and designers; engineers and entrepreneurs. Against the radiant backdrop of the sunlit Twin Towers, old friends joyfully embraced each other. New colleagues exchanged warm handshakes. Curiously, what the Forum did not attract was the attention of the local population. Not even taxi drivers – typically the city grapevine – knew anything about the mysterious event they were ferrying delegates to.

This failure to involve the general public in the Forum was a great shame. It’s rare that a major UN conference takes place on Malaysian soil. But it was also a wasted opportunity to engage citizens with some of the most fascinating and pressing issues of our time: rapid urbanisation and its effects on cities, city-dwellers, the economy, and the environment. Like fish oblivious to water, we take the city for granted. We complain about traffic, we complain about parking; but most of us never stop to think about how the cities we live in are built through intentional design – through the deliberate choices of mostly overlooked humans. Every little decision they make has a tangible effect on the city and our experience of it. If the city is a machine, who presses the buttons? And why do cities matter so much anyway?


Why cities? Why now?

In a nutshell, cities are a huge deal because cities are our future – whether we like it or not. A 2016 UN report forecasted that two-thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2030. In developing countries, the urban population is expected to double. According to NYU research scholar Patrick Lamson-Hall, for every person that relocates to a city in a developed country from 2015 to 2050, 18 people in developing countries will make the same move. Some projections calculate that 70 percent of the world’s population will be urban by 2050, although there are admittedly issues with using binary rural-urban categories.

Nevertheless, the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs counted 28 mega-cities worldwide in 2014 – cities with 10 million inhabitants or more – of which 16 were located in Asia. That’s up from just ten mega-cities in 1990, and the number is expected to rise to 41 by 2030.

Tokyo 3
Above: A busy pedestrian crossing in Shibuya, the bustling shopping and entertainment district of Tokyo. (Image: Candida.Performa)


So why does it matter what cities do?

If enormous swathes of people are moving to the city, then how cities fare is critically important. Experts have long hoped that limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius would hold back destructive and deadly climate consequences. But a few weeks ago, new studies dealt a harsh blow to that hope, suggesting that a cap of two degrees is not enough. The participation of cities will be crucial in mitigating the damage, given that cities already use 80 percent of the planet’s energy and produce 70 percent of its greenhouse gases.

There is also the issue of how to keep such vast concentrations of people safe. Besides holding the power to quicken or curtail climate change, cities have to handle shocks like disease outbreaks, terrorist attacks, hurricanes, earthquakes, fire, and flooding. They need to manage stresses like high unemployment and shortages of food, water, and housing; they deal with crime and violence, traffic gridlock, and inefficient or inadequate public transportation systems. In other words, we need urban resilience, which is “the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions, businesses, and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience.”

In addition, Asia has widening socioeconomic inequality to worry about. A 2017 Oxfam research paper found that the richest man in Vietnam earns more in a day than the poorest Vietnamese earns in a decade. In 2016, Kuala Lumpur had the highest income inequality in Asia (the sixth highest in the world!) despite achieving 112 percent overall economic growth from 2005 to 2016. The World Bank’s latest Malaysia Economic Monitor also noted that urban low-income households have been hit especially hard by inflation. This is due to urban areas’ comparatively high food price inflation rates and structural undersupply of affordable homes.

Inequality is a grave problem because of its historical tendency to lead to instability and social division. An increasing number of people who move to cities lack access to basic services, housing, and jobs. With the rich and poor in close proximity, cities heighten the visibility of inequality. As Barack Obama said in his final address to the UN General Assembly as US president, “A world in which one percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable.”


“What can I do to make you love me?”

Beyond the more utilitarian challenges of safety and security, cities must now also concern themselves with image. Branding matters, and the vanity isn’t trivial. As Jia-Ping Lee pointed out at the recent Urban Design Summit in Singapore, another major shift has taken place: People now choose cities, not jobs. Lee, a programme director at Think City, warned that just as corporate culture can make or break a company by attracting or repelling talent, a city that bleeds people is on death row. Rapidly-emptying Venice is a case in point.

Here in Malaysia, we are all too familiar with the dreaded “brain drain”: an estimated one million Malaysians now work overseas. 56,576 Malaysians renounced their citizenship between 2006 and 2016, and efforts by national agency TalentCorp to lure high-skilled professionals home produced a paltry 398 returners in 2016. Between 1960 and 2005, the global Malaysian diaspora increased by a jaw-dropping 155 times. The global migrant count rose by only 2.4 times in the same period.

Granted, many Malaysians leave because of grievances with national-level policies and attitudes, but how many people love Kuala Lumpur or Johor Bahru the way people passionately adore London, Paris, or New York? Do wide-eyed youth dream of moving to Miri or Alor Setar? Austin, the proudly “weird” capital of Texas, is booming: its population has grown by over 60 percent since 2000, and it consistently tops US city rankings for fastest job growth. Economist Angelos Angelou remarked, “The beer is cold and the music is good and the enchiladas are tasty.” Our cities just don’t hold the same pull as the spirited home of SXSW (South by Southwest Conference & Festivals for the uninitiated). The cities (and by extension, the countries) that will not only survive but thrive in this century will be those that succeed in winning – and keeping – hearts and minds.

Austin City Limits
Above: The crowd at one of Austin’s famed music festivals, Austin City Limits, framed by the downtown skyline. (Image: Kent)

So exponential, unstoppable urbanisation means that the future of our cities will determine our futures, too. When we consider the statistics, it is clear that the sustainable development and prudent management of our cities is imperative for securing a bright collective future. Moreover, with the tides of globalisation and technological acceleration upon us, a survival-of-the-fittest battle is underway: Cities must vie for the affection of a global, mobile talent pool. These are the reasons why it is more urgent than ever for us to strive towards more liveable, lovable, sustainable, and resilient cities.

Coming up: Part II of Cities 101 will explore the question, “Who makes a city?”

Copyright © 2018 Yan Teh. All rights reserved.

4 Replies to “Cities 101: Why cities matter (Part I)”

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