World Cities Day 2014

Friday 31 October 2014 was the United Nations' World Cities Day.

With the strap-line 'Better City, Better Life. Leading Urban Transformations', the first World Cities Day was hosted in Shanghai. This location is rather apt - in 1990 just over a quarter of China's population lived in cities, by 2012 this had doubled. In 2035 it is projected that 70% of the country's population will live in its cities. The country is experiencing urbanization on a scale not seen before. This presents its policymakers with a number of challenges, and it's not just in China that urbanization is an issue. Around the world nations are having to address the challenges and the opportunities generated by a growing urban population.

World Cities Day and cities@manchester

Those involved in cities@manchester are participating in conversations with academics, consultants, governments, NGOs, social movements, students and think tanks over the future fate of the world's many different types of cities. Drawing upon a series of on-going programs of research, below are are a number of short pieces on some of the most pressing challenges facing cities. in the words of the United Nations they are our contribution to the wider dialogue over 'the city we need and the future we want':

  • The mobile city by Jonathan Darling and Helen Wilson (Transforming Cities Research Group)
  • Leading urban transformations by Diana Mitlin et al (Global Urban Research Centre - GURC)
  • Handle with care: the urban energy transition by Alastair Moore et al (Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy - CURE)
  • Infrastructure development by Cecilia Wong et al (Centre for Urban Policy Studies - CUPS)

The mobile city

Cities are defined by movement, they’re founded on flows of people, resources, materials and ideas. Whether they’re defined as world cities or as cosmopolitan, multicultural, intercultural or even creative cities, it is mobility that increasingly marks contemporary urban life. Looking to the future, how cities respond to different forms of mobility will be a key determining factor in both their future form and their future prosperity. Here we outline the challenge of urban mobility in three ways.

Firstly, we might think of how cities attract migrants from the world over. Globalisation has seen the acceleration of both legal and illegal migration as populations move on an unprecedented scale. One result of which has been the growth of cities in both the Global North and the Global South as new arrivals seek livelihoods and opportunities in formal and informal economies. Whilst migration may bring the innovation and talent that cities require for economic prosperity, it also poses the challenge of how to accommodate and negotiate the interests of increasingly diverse urban populations.   

The second challenge then, reflects the new forms of identity and belonging that are emerging as a result, and that are changing and challenging traditional urban politics. Today more than ever before, the impacts of geopolitical events are felt in cities across the globe, which can be seen in the current spikes in xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia that have followed recent world events. Whilst diversity and plurality are often held as urban values and new forms of attachment, affiliation and solidarity have emerged to create plural forms of urban citizenship, such diverse values are strained by persistent and stark inequalities that threaten to undermine these very forms of belonging.       

Finally, urban futures are likely to be shaped by how cities choose to mobilise themselves (how they reach out to other places and people) as much as they are by how cities choose to accommodate mobility itself. Just as new forms of mobility present new challenges, increased communication and networking between cities can present new solutions, as forms of urban cooperation, collaboration and learning may influence transnational issues, from carbon offsetting to the challenges of rapidly changing demographics. Contrary to the illusory fixity of bricks and mortar, cities are mobile entities. How they harness that mobility is essential to their future.  

By Jonathan Darling and Helen F Wilson (Transforming Cities Research Group).

Leading urban transformations

As the city of Shanghai hosts World Cities Day on 31 October, we have an opportunity to think collectively about how the international community meets the challenges of urbanisation and addresses the stark inequalities found in many cities across the globe. The theme of World Cities Day is leading urban transformations, which focuses on the physical and economic development of cities, but must also include transformation of political and civic relations, leading to stronger and more participative forms of urban governance. It is fitting that in this week, community leaders from Shack/Slum Dwellers International are at the University of Manchester teaching GDI Masters students about the ways in which they organise to change cities from below.

SDI affiliate organisations help low income communities in 300 cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America to be partners in development; supporting and delivering housing, basic service infrastructure and upgrading of informal settlements. In contexts where there are growing populations but limited public budgets, community input into urban development, in partnership with city and national governments, can provide a valuable source of capacity, finance and local knowledge.

In South Africa, for example, the co-productive upgrading of informal communities has demonstrated how organised communities can overcome the inherent problems of community-state collaboration. Benefits are generated for low income communities by improving access to decent accommodation, water and sanitation; collaboration supports city and national government to deliver urban development targets; and it contributes to reducing urban poverty and inequality.

As we think about cities, we need to consider how, post-2015, the organisational and political barriers to community participation in development governance are removed. Securing the involvement and local leadership of communities in urban development can generate real benefit for cities and their citizens. It also provides a route for state organisations to connect with a relatively untapped, but highly committed, source of knowledge and capacity to drive forward urban development. The first step to realising this potential is acknowledging the expertise of community activists to share their experiences and ideas. 

By Diana Mitlin et al (Global Urban Research Centre - GURC)

Handle with care: the urban energy transition

The urban space is in many ways ground zero for the transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable, low-carbon energy sources, but to what degree are cities well placed to meet the complex challenges arising from the energy transition? Normative energy discourse suggests that cities hold much promise as future socio-economic engines and incubators for low-carbon and resource efficient development. Yet issues of equity, power and governance in the energy domain are deeply contested, giving rise to concerns about urban energy resilience and its counter-case, vulnerability.

Energy resilience is understood as a city's capacity to accommodate structural reconfigurations of the energy supply system while avoiding inequitable distribution effects and collateral damage to other urban support systems. Rather than a purely technological or economic issue, resilience also turns on social infrastructures, ecological integrity and institutional capacity. Energy vulnerability emerges in the absence of these assets and manifests itself in myriad ways such as fuel poverty and inequitable access to reliable, low-carbon energy services.

The complex relations between energy, society and environmental integrity call for linked-up policy solutions and reconfigured governance systems. CURE researchers are exploring these challenges by posing key questions related to three areas of debate: fair and reliable access to energy services, the resilience of urban-ecologies and social / physical infrastructures to shocks, and the capacity of governance systems to navigate across scales and among diverse actors. 

As supplies of conventional fossil fuels dwindle and governments and energy markets respond by providing often times more expensive and less reliable sources of low-carbon energy, many urban poor find themselves becoming more, rather than less vulnerable to fuel poverty. Moreover, the scale of investment required often precludes local ownership of urban renewable energy infrastructure, leading to spatial separation and contested interests between shareholder and energy end-user. The spatial nature of renewable energy sources like wind or solar is also implicated in the creation of uneven patterns of development and barriers to energy access raising further questions of reliability and equity of supply.

Multi-lateral climate negotiations and debate at the global scale, while potentially a valuable ally in the low-carbon transition at the urban scale, reveal deep discord over how to allocate responsibility for emissions and highlight the misalignment of current models of governance and the multi-scale socio-economic and ecological feedbacks presented by a changing climate. The uncertainty about climate responsibility, coupled with the intimacy between emissions and energy use, leaves the question of who should pay for the low-carbon transition (and energy efficiency investments by default) unresolved.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that the low-carbon transition is taking place at a time of accelerating climate change and weather extremes, and that resulting urban strategies and infrastructures will need to be resilient to this change. Cities must develop social, economic and technological infrastructures with built-in resilience to shocks if they are to mitigate the impacts of a warming climate and avoid further aggravating energy vulnerability.

In the face of these highly interconnected and emerging structural forces, new vocabularies for resilience and energy vulnerability need to be developed, and systems of climate governance will have to be re-thought, and likely reconfigured, if the energy transition is to deliver on its promise.

By Alastair Moore et al (Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy - CURE)

Infrastructure development

Modern cities and towns embody an extremely complicated and vibrant process in which infrastructure plays an important mediating role between flow, movement and exchange. Research continues to highlight spatial inequality in inter-metropolitan accessibility in Europe and within the UK in terms of the key road, rail and air networks. Long-neglected, infrastructure planning has returned to the political limelight in the UK since the 2007 financial crisis as infrastructure investment and capital spending is seen by the government as a way of stimulating economic growth. While the debate has been preoccupied with the financial, efficiency and regulatory aspects of major infrastructure development, there is a lack of systematic understanding and assessment of the spatial issues.

Recent work on OECD countries shows that public capital investment has resulted in an average output elasticity of 0.22 percent, which will translate as an approximately 34 percent growth-maximizing ratio of public to private capital, highlighting the potential contribution of public capital investment to economic growth. However, a key concern is about how such growth is spatially distributed. The spatial implications, in terms of benefits and cohesion, of infrastructure development are particularly pertinent in Britain given the deeply entrenched north-south spatial divide. While the Chancellor claims that major projects like the HS2 will bring economic benefits to the Midlands and northern England, the National Audit Office nonetheless provides a scathing indictment of the government’s case by pointing out the shortfall of a £3.3 billion funding gap and the flaws and errors in its impact analysis.

The gravity of British spatial connections has already been pulling towards London and different places are already in multiple speeds, both in terms of rail journey times and economic competitive advantages. Clearly, an infrastructure project such as HS2 will provide a major shock to the system, but there are winners and losers. The spatial implications, in terms of benefits and cohesion, of infrastructure planning are particularly pertinent to the core cities given the deeply entrenched north-south regional divide. It is the right time for us to assess whether the right policies and investment strategies are in place and what are the uncertainty surrounding the changing subnational economic development institutions in the UK. The struggle between growth efficiency and spatial equity of infrastructure development should form the core agenda for urban research.

By Cecilia Wong et al (Centre for Urban Policy Studies  - CUPS)