Megacity Tips from Europe’s Highest Town as Davos Debates FutureSimon Kennedy
From the highest town in Europe came advice for those building cities around the globe.
The Swiss ski resort of Davos, which sits about 1,500 meters above sea level, last week played host to the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. Forming part of the agenda: the costs and benefits of accelerating urbanization.
The United Nations calculates the number of megacities with populations of more than 15 million will jump to 35 by 2025 from 22 in 2011. That transition throws up challenges to economies, budgets, infrastructure, the environment and social fabrics, which several panels at the conference sought to address.
“If you want to have a modern city you need to adapt and evolve,” Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri said in an interview in Davos. “Every week cities receive hundreds of citizens that come to look for a job or new experiences or simply to have fun and they all demand quality services.”
Among the statistics presented to highlight the rise of city-dwelling: the number of people living in cities will nearly double to 6.4 billion by 2050. If Tokyo were a country it would be the 31st largest in a decade’s time, while China is seeking to urbanize 250 million rural residents.
“From global warming to homelessness, from debt crisis to energy shortages, from insufficient water, name any problem that concerns humanity and the city is the crucible where you will find it bubbling away,” said Geoffrey West, a physicist and distinguished professor at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. “But cities also represent our best hope for finding solutions to these enormous challenges since they are the cauldrons of innovation, ideas and wealth.”
The importance of planning was voiced by Parks Tau, the mayor of Johannesburg, whose “Joburg 2040 GDS” initiative was started after consultations with the city’s inhabitants to modernize their hometown after the damage done by Apartheid.
“There has to be a long-term vision,” Tau said. “Of course, you can change along the way, but it’s important to have a distinct vision of where a city is going.”
From India, which has three cities with populations topping 17 million, Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath said governments should focus on encouraging suburbs. “You see high pressure urbanization, so the advice I have is to consider suburbanization more,” he said.
Compatriot Tejprett S. Chopra, the former head of General Electric Co. in India, said cities need to focus especially on the young.
“If you can’t provide for them, you lose talent and can’t fulfil the needs of the people,” he said.
Architect Stephen Cairns of the Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore said governments should be wary of importing blueprints from abroad which had become outmoded and inefficient, such as high-rise apartments.
“The vertical city seems to become the model we’re veering toward,” he said. “We can develop grassroots urbanization that doesn’t rely on outdated models.”
Success can have costs too. London Mayor Boris Johnson said the biggest issue confronting the U.K. capital is a shortage of housing for local residents as overseas buyers drive up property prices. Homes prices in London jumped 9.1 percent last year, Hometrack Ltd. said on Dec. 30.
“We’re seeing huge increases in property values because of international investors wanting to buy this new asset class,” Johnson told Bloomberg Television. “We’re building huge numbers of affordable homes and that’s the biggest issue for a city like London.”
A city that came in for repeated praise was Singapore. As well as enjoying a prime geographical location in Asia, it serves as hub for regional tourism, investment and trade thanks to low taxes, a large ex-pat community, minimal trade barriers and a strong rule of law. That has helped to diversify its economy from serving as a home to outsourced foreign companies toward high-wage financial services and top-end manufacturing, said Razeen Sally, a visiting Associate Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
“There is plenty one can learn from a place like Singapore,” said Sally.