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“We’re in an urban century, there is no doubt,” said Peter H. Liotta, visiting scholar at the U.S. Military Academy West Point and co-author of The Real Population Bomb: Megacities, Global Security, and the Map of the Future, during a March 20 event at the Wilson Center. Liotta’s book focuses on the geopolitical impacts of poorly managed urbanization on the most vulnerable as well as the security issues such urbanization might create. He was joined by Jaana Remes of the McKinsey Global Institute, who painted a more promising picture of a globally rising, economically prosperous urban middle class, and Stimson Center visiting fellow Peter Engelke, who grappled with the contradictions between these alternative urban realities.
“Urbanization is key to economic development, but it has been, is now, and will continue to be into the future, beset by a very large shadow side, wherein the marginalized face grinding poverty, squalor, and despair,” explained Engelke.
Although Liotta and Remes laid out very different “maps of the future,” Engelke suggested three commonalities. First, they both highlight the “unprecedented scale and speed of global change.” Second, they acknowledge that “a global demographic shift is well underway, and has been for some time.” And third, they accept that we have yet to fully integrate cities into the physical and mental maps by which we navigate the world, he said. Despite the economic dynamism of cities, “we live in a world that, I submit, has not yet grasped this reality even in conceptual terms, much less political and policy ones.”
The City as a Source of Vulnerability
People come to megacities “because there’s a chance,” said Liotta. “It looks like a nightmare to us, but people come because they’re waiting for a future.” This chance, however, is often slim, according to Liotta.
The sheer scale of modern urbanization (approximately 200,000 people move every day from rural to urban areas) produces myriad sources of vulnerability for the poorest and most marginalized, said Liotta. “World population growth will occur in the poorest, youngest, and often heavily Muslim states, which lack education, capital, and employment. And for the first time in history the world will be primarily urbanized, with most megacities in the poor states where you don’t have policing, sanitation, and health care.”
This urban shift concentrates young populations presumed to be unstable, exacerbates the risk of disease and climate change, and increases the threat of declining resource availability and food production, Liotta said. In states where “the lights are out” – that is, where urbanization is not met with sufficient economic development – our new urban century may feature significant security challenges, he argued. “Every single security problem we have today, and in the future – whether it’s human security, environmental security, or national security – is [in] the places where the lights are out.”
In The Real Population Bomb, Liotta links these sorts of security issues to what he terms “entangled vulnerability scenarios,” such as scarcity of water for drinking and irrigation, outbreak and rapid spread of disease, or lack of sufficient warning systems for natural disasters or environmental impacts. These scenarios, he argues, deserve a greater showing next to the traditional focus on hard security “threats.”
Fertility rates are generally declining, which will eventually dissipate the youth bulges being experienced by many countries, but the challenge is how to “manage that glide path,” said Liotta. It is about “doing it well collectively, because we are not thinking collectively well about how to do this and places in the world are in serious trouble.”
The City as a Center of Growth
Jaana Remes presented both a broader scale of analysis and a more positive outlook. Urbanization is “the most powerful positive economic force in today’s environment,” she asserted, drawing on the McKinsey Global Institute report, Urban World: Mapping the Economic Power of Cities.
Compared to the historical experiences of the Western world, change in the most rapidly urbanizing of today’s developing states is occurring at “100 times the scale, in one tenth of the time,” said Remes. This change is fundamentally shifting the economic profiles of states such as India and China, which are projected to account for approximately one third of global GDP by 2050.
This growth in economic prominence can be accounted for by the rise of urban populations of middle class consumers not just in megacities, but also in the rapidly growing “middleweight” cities (from 200,000 to 10 million people) explained Remes. The path that these cities take will be “very significant for…how our world is going to look like in the next few decades,” she said. They are where “the lion’s share of global investment is going to be made.”
Engaging Global Urbanization
“That we are seeing cities rise in their profile is nothing new in history,” said Remes, “in fact you can argue that cities are actually some of the longest-lasting assets in the world.” Today, 600 urban centers generate more than 60 percent of global GDP; 400 of these are in emerging markets. So, “even though the scale of the change we expect to see is very dramatic, from the cities perspective, it is probably going to be more evolution than revolution.”
Taking advantage of this growth will require some significant global re-posturing. In terms of commercial diplomacy for instance, most nations continue to distribute their people more according to the “geopolitical power of the 20th century than the economic opportunity of the 21st,” said Remes. She points out, for example, that the city of Wuhan in China is expected to generate 10 times the GDP growth of Auckland, New Zealand, yet the number of foreign service officials stationed in each city is in the opposite proportion.
Policymakers looking to adapt should also look more closely at opportunities to re-develop existing, or “brownfield,” infrastructure. The challenge of accommodating the tremendous pace of urbanization may be great, she said, but “we have not yet seen one piece of infrastructure where you can’t make substantial improvements.”
Summing up the need to work on what he argued has been a shortfall in policy engagement, Engelke concluded that, “we are indeed quite a ways from acknowledging the enormous challenges, but also the opportunities, that global urbanization presents to us.”
Drafted by Staurt Kent and edited by Schuyler Null