The urbanization of developing countries is transforming global climate, landscapes, societies, and cultures. The strong pull of cities and towns for higher wages and quality of life has emptied rural areas and provided higher incomes, education, health status, longevity, and, for many, liberation from the limitations of rural life.

Some writers such as Edward Glaeser or Jeb Brugmann sing of the “triumph of the city” or the “urban revolution.” The world has changed and its new benefits should be understood and praised. This is true, but these observers fail to devote enough attention, outrage, and urgency to the dark side of urbanization, to the billions of people lacking adequate water and sanitation, housing, and, most importantly, decent employment. So too do they minimize the responsibility of government in helping to solve the problems for its most vulnerable citizens. This dark side is not just an exaggerated dystopic view of cities, such as those expressed by Mike Davis or what Ruth Glass called “clichés of urban doom,” but rather a massive grinding poverty affecting millions of urban residents.

The above praise for cities is for an outdated urban model which fails to recognize that cities are now operating on a radically different economic, social, and cultural ecology than the city of the 20th century. Cities in the 21st century are faced with overcoming failed urban legacies, with their extended and energy-intensive form, their alarming and dangerous contribution to climate change, their multiple forms of inequality and exclusion, and their inability to provide decent livelihoods for a large share of the world’s population.

A New Global Turn

It should not be surprising that people who have “arrived” in the “promised land” are deeply frustrated by their inability to enjoy the opportunities and quality of life that the city provides to a fortunate few. This perception is well-captured in the Kenyan proverb, “Those who have arrived have a long way to go.” But what is new is that this frustration no longer belongs only to people in poor countries but is now reflected in the middle class in rich countries such as the United States, where real incomes have declined significantly over the last two decades, and in Europe where mass demonstrations reflect unhappiness with growing austerity, unemployment, and uncertainty. All of this is succinctly captured in the decision of Time Magazine to declare the “Protester” as Man of the Year for 2011.

These frustrations are dramatically heard from the Arab Spring to los indignados in Spain to Occupy Wall Street, to the polarization of the 99 percent and the other 1 percent. As people flow into Tahrir Square, Plaza del Sol, or Zuccotti Park, they are expressing solidarity with their fellow citizens and criticizing government policies that have failed to moderate the growing gap between rich and poor. The urban question for the twenty-first century must be: how do cities operate to support the needs of the 99 percent?

The last two decades have been characterized by the perceived power and exaggerated optimism of observers such as Thomas Friedman about the prospects of globalization, and more recently by a growing understanding of the downsides of connectivity, asymmetric interdependence, and inequalities. A shopkeeper in Buenos Aires knows that the debt negotiations in Greece will affect her business and now she can follow this news hour by hour on the internet. As Argentine historian Margarita Gutman has pointed out, unlike a century earlier, tomorrow is no longer expected to be an improvement over today. The future is less not more, but for whom?

Low expectations for the future are heightened by the fact that politicians are apparently unable and unwilling to cooperate to solve urgent problems, such as budget deficits, the fate of the Euro and Europe, or global climate change. Whether they meet in Brussels, Durban, or Washington, leaders fail to offer credible responses to the sense of policy drift. As noted recently by former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, there is an evident absence of global leadership.


This gap in global leadership results in part from continuing debates about the role of the state as well as the evident interest of national governments in bailing out private banks rather than providing safety nets for the needy. Longstanding ideological debates in Europe and North America block calls to action, however urgent. In contrast, Latin American countries have learned through their unhappy decade of the Washington Consensus policies of the 1990s that an active state is an essential part of economic management and the resolution of social problems. Yet, even in countries which have to date successfully resisted the worst impacts of the global economic crisis, there has been little recognition that their success has also depended on the productivity of their cities. Thus, globally, while many of these dramas and debates occur within cities and are fundamentally about lives in cities, there is rarely mention of the city.

The City is the Future but the City is Missing

This situation is all the more surprising because the link between cities and the world economy has never been more evident. The 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis in the United States brought on the global financial crisis. Rising unemployment is seen on city streets. Urban banks are protecting their deposits in fear of the next financial crisis. The crisis of the Euro means that Wall Street, which accounts for about two-thirds of municipal revenue for New York City, will earn less. The local result is school closings in New York, reduced municipal services including police and firemen. The global and the urban are now inseparable. Global conditions affect local welfare and opportunities. Indeed, it is local productivity and mobility which may be more important for the sustainability of cities than large investment projects.

However, within this broader global scenario, it is noteworthy that there is little discussion of the role of the city as the civic and economic platform for national life in all countries and in fact, the platform for global stability as well. This absence underlines the need for new political and intellectual leadership to acknowledge the world’s urban transformation.

New leaders need to understand that how cities operate will determine in large part the level of welfare and inequality of their residents and their impact on the global climate and the global economy. The metropolitan form of cities, with their suburbs and peri-urban areas, is both a result of policy and design, but also a cause of new local pathologies with global consequences. Indeed, it is this change in the global role of the local which marks the shift from Habitat I in 1976 and Habitat III or 3.0 in 2016. Indeed, as documented by many writers, cities now account for 70 percent of GDP in most countries, so that the economic futures of countries depend on increasing the productivity of cities.

Delayed recognition of the world’s urban transformation is also risky, for countries and the planet as a whole. Since 2009, national economic stimulus packages have failed to lead countries out of the economic crisis by failing to stimulate urban aggregate demand in cities and economic multipliers to restart the growth of employment and consumption. GDP growth has now become job-less growth and is creating the very conditions of poverty and growing inequality which fuel protest and violence. Only China could politically afford to send 20 million unemployed urban construction workers back to the rural areas in 2009 as the global crisis reached Chinese cities. But even there, China with its 124 cities with over one million population (while the United States has 14 and Europe nine), is beginning to feel the strain as citizens begin to protest public confiscation of land. Chinese leaders, like those on Wall Street or the generals in Cairo, are asking what measures will contain growing urban demands.

The lines are thus being drawn ever clearer in cities in both rich and poor countries. What is surprising, however, is that the particularly urban dimension of these movements has not attracted political attention, except in cases where they have been repressed. Cities are the economic and political spaces in which people’s economic welfare is largely, if not exclusively, determined. Yet most national governments do not have effective ministries of urban development nor is urban policy considered to be an important instrument for national policy. K.C. Sivaramakrishnan, former Indian Secretary of Urban Development, has noted that this has begun to change in India where the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNURM), a program to finance high priority urban infrastructure and institutional strengthening, has reached out to one hundred. President Obama barely mentioned cities in his 2008 presidential campaign and that silence has continued for three years as urban block grants to US cities have been further reduced and local economies shrunk.


A very worrisome coda to this argument is that there is growing global recognition that cities produce much of the greenhouse gases bringing climate change. Nonetheless, the movement to change national policies and restrict global damage appears to be having little or no significant effect. We have separated the energy issue from the urban issue, yet they are interdependent.

Reinventing the Urban: Towards 3.0

Thus, while there is clearly important global and national convincing to be done, we must urgently consider how to reinvent the city itself. Habitat III offers an opportunity to restart and energize this process of reinvention.

The history of reinvention of the computer and the development of the Internet offers some useful insights about what this might involve. First, it is important to remember the heavy, massive mainframe computers of the 1950s and 1960s which occupied whole rooms and demonstrated how to analyze what was then understood as vast amounts of information. Today, we have shrunk the old computer, dramatically reduced its footprint and its cost, increased its power and memory, and through the laptop to the iPhone and the iPad, have created platforms which can use new “apps” - applications invented by people and firms for particular uses. These new computers have allowed the expansion of the Internet so more voices can be heard in a non-hierarchical framework, allowing new forms of interaction, learning, knowledge, and the collective construction across space of yet new forms of value, collaboration, and communication.

In a similar sense, we can also think of how we might transform the legacy of earlier versions of the city we have inherited. Most immediately we can see how the cities of the postwar period – from the modern designs of Le Corbusier to the globalization of urban forms: cities of tall buildings, wide infrastructures and highways, large spaces, and gated enclaves, have sacrificed neighborhoods and communities in the name of progress. Such “modernity” is visible in the present metropolitan forms of Mexico City, Bangkok, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires, with other cities such as rapidly-expanding Delhi or newly metropolitan Nairobi seeking to emulate them.

These urban designs have proven to be infrastructure and energy intensive, highly exclusionary and unequal, as well as economically inefficient in their productivity, and much less sustainable. The modern skylines seen on Google maps obscure the spaces of exclusion, polluted air, unproductive separation, and politically polarized zones of the largest cities. While the political motivations may vary, there are surprising similarities between the urban form of Johannesburg, Moscow, and Atlanta. Each of these cities demonstrates the need for urban reinvention, with lower energy costs, and a reduction of their ecological footprint.

What is meant by urban reinvention? Perhaps we need to think of a new model of the city along the lines of the new computers and even the iPhone: a city as a spatial, economic, and social platform with many new apps, a smaller ecological footprint, less heavy in its infrastructure, and more agile in its ability to reshape itself according to new economic, social, and environmental needs. Could this city, like computers, be able to exploit the steep decrease in the cost of gathering and processing information, and in the availability of real time data? Perhaps the city needs to be understood more as a cumulative and dynamic process than a product or legacy of past footprints, and needs to be able to design new balances between hard and soft infrastructure.

Edward Glaeser notes that the more resilient cities are those with more knowledge and people-centered knowledge—human capital—and less fixed infrastructure. This dichotomous formulation is probably exaggerated. Individuals and groups need to redefine and redesign their relationships with infrastructure, as shown so well in Curitiba and Medellin. Reflexivity and resiliency are now understood as essential qualities in the face of new risks. To achieve both, cities have to invest more in their people and less in concrete. A recent study by the Brookings Institution of North American cities during the economic crisis suggests that cities with continued investment in education were the first to develop knowledge products and to move up the value chain. Competitiveness may mean less about attracting a Hewlett-Packard plant to Medellin or Bogota, but more about investing in new capacities to do new things within internal markets. Such a definition is close to the conclusion of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who argued that development is freedom, but only development of new capabilities to meet changing needs.


In a world of climate change and global economic shocks, cities need to be more resilient as new risks appear and terms such as contagion become more frequently applied to challenges beyond human health. A reinvented city needs a more user friendly user manual, with more creative spaces for imagination and differentiation. While some technology companies are developing privatized platforms for more efficient technologically-run infrastructure, the idea must be to build open local and free platforms.

This is far beyond the European debates about the “creative city” of the 1990s where the economic potential of culture and the arts were understood as promoters of city development. Rather, we must think about designing platforms where people come together. This means designing cities which are denser, and not sprawling, in the galloping suburban expansion that Solly Angel and his colleagues have observed around the world.

Higher density allows more economic and social multipliers, what the economists inelegantly refer to as economies of agglomeration and economies of proximity. We need a new debate about urban scale, no longer calling for “more,” but rather recognizing that more is not enough. We need a more integrated and new understanding of scale. “Scaling up” cannot mean producing more of the same thing if our urban patterns are generating economic, social, and environmental pathologies. Higher density and larger scale must be translated into “different” or into promoting the diversity of co-existing local systems. Scaling up should not be understood as a rough terrain that needs to flattened or generalized into a system where one size fits all.

Reinvention demands public debates between contrasting positions, as sharp as the disagreements between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses over the proposed demolition of Greenwich Village in New York. It calls for more intensive public engagement about these all-important issues.

It also means redefining terms to allow for new, more insightful and game-changing narratives. For example, it is now understood that infrastructure is much more than concrete engineering systems. Urban planner Bill Morrish has reminded us that landscape itself is infrastructure, setting the parameters within which local ecologies can exist and evolve. Abdou Maliq Simone has described “people as infrastructure,” using the examples of African cities where public institutions and public utilities networks are weak, but where, nevertheless, people establish new functional relations of human connectivity. Arjun Appadurai has written of “deep democracy,” describing the embedded political and social relations among the poor in some cities that are both more politically sensitive to local needs but also more immediately accountable to local constituents than formal municipal institutions. These three redefinitions are descriptive of new ecological, social, and cultural realities and are at the same time hopeful, in suggesting more is going on than what is acknowledged by conventional wisdom. The city in the 21st century can be a new form of “civilizing terrain,” to use Bill Morrish’s term, but it will require new approaches to design and resetting the foundations of what is called urban knowledge.

Where is the International Community?

Reinvention also requires reassessment of the role of the international community on urban issues. It is almost 40 years since the World Bank approved its first urban loan, for a sites and services project in Senegal in 1972. This marked the beginning of an active program of international support which reached 7,000 cities and towns in developing countries by 2000. Other multi-lateral and bi-lateral agencies increased this number by another 4,000 cities and towns by that year. Concessional international aid reached about US $60 billion by the year 2000 and it is probably twice as much in 2012. UN Habitat has grown dramatically since the late 1970s and had extended technical assistance operations in many countries.


Yet these approaches essentially “entered the city through the house and the bathroom” by their focus on shelter and residential infrastructure, rather than considering the city as a site of value creation, income generation, and productivity. Aid has often “projectized the city” rather than considering the city as a whole. It is not surprising that the project lens would miss, or ignore, the issue of urban form and urban density, or for that matter, the urban economy as a whole. The urban debate has been consumed by slums and led to slogans like “cities without slums,” but this focus misses the more important need for “cities with jobs.” Like the misdiagnosis of the surgeon, the operation was successful, but the patient died. Or in this case, shelter and infrastructure projects succeeded, but the patient—the city or the nation—simply increased its international debt.

This disappointing assessment suggests that the international community needs to redesign its approach to aiding cities, including locating the city within national development strategy, assuring the productivity of capital and labor in cities, and giving priority attention to the most vulnerable urban populations. This also suggests redefining the notion of “urban wealth” towards higher value knowledge products to increase local productivity and exports for the global economy. This requires investment in human capital as well as technology.

It also means paying more attention to particular groups who are frequently neglected or worse still, excluded. First, women whose growing role in the labor force makes them a central player in welfare and income from the household to the urban, national, and global levels. The issue of gender and cities has not received enough attention in the worlds of policy or design. Secondly, the presence of youth is increasingly felt in politics and crime. Clearly there must be intensified efforts to develop opportunities for employment and education. Thirdly, the older populations have become a more significant voice, particularly in poor countries where health improvements have increased longevity. Each of these groups constitutes an important segment of the growing global urban population.

This argument leads to the debate about making cities more creative and inventive as they make local contributions to a sustainable commonwealth. It is a new world, using technology to inform the citizenry and solve problems. It is in part about design, not in terms of old style land use planning, but rather as “intentionality” in thinking through new products and processes to reduce the costs of urban living while increasing human welfare and sustainability. Examples from the vast Kibera slum in Nairobi show how using digital maps on smart phones can improve community level economic decisions and generate information for improved public space.

Making cities more creative and productive also requires believing that people are intelligent and creative themselves. It means building new, broader, and deeper forms of urban knowledge, aggregating activities and territory of the local into systems for framing the diverse ecological, social, cultural, and economic terrains of mega-cities.

This radical assumption was the basis of the project to build libraries in poor neighborhoods in Medellin. Similarly, some of the initiatives in Curitiba assume that if the “platform” permits innovation, people will generate new ideas and solutions to old problems. These cases, however, also raise the question of why positive experiences do not spread and force us to ask, “What are the barriers to urban change?”


What is the Alternative to Urban 3.0?

The above forces us to think as well of what alternative there could be to a reinvented city. The current patterns of growing inequality, youth unemployment and violence, and cities behind walls, so well described by Teresa Caldeira in her study of urban Brazil, all underline the urgent need for alternative urban models. This dystopic scenario erodes the basis of urban citizenship. If violence is born from poverty, inequality, and lack of alternative opportunities, how can the city be designed to reduce these differences and create spaces of hope, as David Harvey described a decade ago?

Conclusion: It is Time to Begin Again

The stakes in the debates about the future of cities are global stakes. They are at once political and economic, determining the future of the planet and the possibility of social justice and sustainability in the future. There can be no greater stakes. It is time to begin again!

Rather than start from the dystopian arguments which framed the designs of the 20th century city - a place to protect from attack - we are looking for a regenerative city without walls. We cannot wait until 2016. Indeed, the next five years are critical. We need to be operating in a 3.0 mode by 2016, in a digital technology time frame. By 2016, urban 3.0 might already be out of date or it might be under the control of new basic platforms of urban information that determine customer behavior rather than encourage creative urban citizenship. Or to paraphrase two young Argentine designers, Carlos Asad and Julia Viviana, in a 2003 exhibition about the future of Buenos Aires in 2050, we must look forward to, and build, a future that is not a luxury and already has an owner. Rather we need to proactively reframe problems to reinvent more productive, equitable, and sustainable cities.