For the first time in human history, more of us live in cities than in rural areas: 54 per cent of the world’s population is now urban, a figure expected to increase to about 70 per cent by 2050.
It’s easy to see why migration drives this trend — cities offer economic opportunities that entice people in search of a better life. But growth and urbanisation bring with them a host of challenges for cities already struggling to provide services and cope with environmental pressures. In many parts of the developing world the result is rising poverty, inequality and environmental degradation.
The shift to an urban-majority world, which occurred in recent years (the statistics attribute it to 2007), strongly signals the need to take a critical and imaginative look at how cities develop. How can cities reshape their futures and become more sustainable?
A lot has been written about urban challenges — traffic and waste management, climate resilience and pollution, to name a few — and many of us will know about them from first-hand experience. In this Spotlight we touch on these but focus more on the solutions, highlighting trends in urban planning and cases around the world where technologies have played a part in positive change.
New labels, new thinking
An overview article by Kate Hawley of ISET International, our consultant for the project, traces how the concept of sustainability evolved over recent decades and how it applies to cities. Hawley then charts urban trends and challenges before outlining how innovative planning, integrative design and technologies have become part of some cities’ plans for sustainability.
As part of the article, an interview with leading urban development expert David Satterthwaite, of the International Institute for Environment and Development in the UK, touches on key issues including the lack of data on cities and urban policy priorities.
Urban areas that strive for safe and healthy environments might give themselves any one of a number of labels including sustainable cities, eco-cities, low-carbon cities, ‘smart’ cities or zero-energy cities. A feature article by journalist Gareth Willmer takes a closer look at the ‘smart’ approach to managing cities as an interconnected system using information technology.
Willmer reports that having a joined-up approach to planning, where no single sector operates in isolation, is seen as essential to making ‘smart’ cities work in the developing world. This message is reinforced in an opinion article by Ashvin Dayal and Anna Brown of the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States. Dayal and Brown argue against a growing tendency towards stand-alone technological solutions, and make the case for institutions that can connect technology with governance and community.
The multimedia features in this Spotlight show in concrete terms how those connections might play out in practice. They give examples of technology used for urban planning and waste management in Kampala and Delhi, whether initiated centrally by government or by the private sector, communities and NGOs. And they highlight both the risks of technology transfer that is blind to existing systems or livelihoods and the promise of using new tools that can work more effectively towards inclusive development.
In an opinion article, Marcus Moench, of the US-based non-profit organisation ISET International, explores the risk of overlooking existing systems a step further. Focusing on climate adaptation, Moench argues that conventional ‘formal’ planning will fail if it remains disconnected from what citizens already do ‘informally’ to respond to climate risks. The two approaches need to be integrated, he says.
On the theme of bridging divides, an opinion article by Edwin Castellanos makes the case for planners and researchers looking beyond the urban boundary to the rural areas they are connected to in many ways, not just through migration. Castellanos, of the University of the Valley of Guatemala and a lead author of the IPCC fifth assessment report on climate change, calls for closer links between the ‘worlds’ of urban sustainability and rural development.
Integrate the informal
Integration is a running theme through this collection — integration of technologies into urban planning and design, of informal and formal activity, of urban and rural contributions to the sustainable city.
Making technologies part of urban planning might take the form of flagship — and expensive — government projects like Masdar City in the United Arab Emirates and India’s plans for 100 smart cities.  But even more modest but far-reaching initiatives, like the sustainable transport systems adopted in several cities, seem to skirt around the challenge of addressing the striking inequalities of urban life. To take another example: how does energy efficiency really help where there’s no electricity grid in the first place?
So regardless of their impact, it’s tempting to think of such projects as missing the mark, particularly in areas where the concerns facing poor people are more fundamentally about housing, infrastructure for basic services and environmental quality.
But access to more efficient transportation might be one of the keys to improving sustainability and the lives of people in slums, according to the book ‘Radical Cities’ by writer and critic Justin McGuirk that draws on urban initiatives across Latin America.  McGuirk writes about “accepting the informal city as an unavoidable feature of the urban condition” — a message echoed in this Spotlight.
In fact, it’s difficult not to see the informal as a starting point for — or at least an essential element of — any investment towards urban sustainability in the developing world.
The idea may take a while to permeate into urban planning. And putting it into practice will require government willingness to resist imported solutions in favour of looking at the local intricacies that are part of any challenges (and therefore their solutions). In some cities, for example, slums are governed by separate jurisdictions — an administrative barrier to making informal settlements part of wider planning initiatives.
Luckily, technology plays a part here too — as a tool used by communities and NGOs working to open up the channels of communication, to push for inclusive planning, and to bridge the gap with government policy. Researchers and city officials need to respond in kind, and follow that lead.
Anita Makri is opinion and special features editor at SciDev.Net. @anita_makri
This article is part of the Spotlight on Transforming cites for sustainability.
References Mahendra Sethi India needs to be clever about smart cities (East Asia Forum, 2014)
 Alexandra Lange A review of Radical cities: across Latin America in search of a new architecture by Justin McGuirk (The Guardian, 2014)