Growing population and the future of cities

Posted on 23 September 2015

It is projected that more than 70 per cent of the global population will be living in cities in 2050. Depending on how we develop and manage cities and their infrastructure in the coming decades, cities could become either a source of inclusive sustainable development or a force for environmental destruction.
[The original article was published on European Year for Development 2015 official platform]

It is projected that more than 70 per cent of the global population will be living in cities in 2050. Depending on how we develop and manage cities and their infrastructure in the coming decades, cities could become either a source of inclusive sustainable development or a force for environmental destruction.


As part of the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, goal 11 of theSustainable Development Goals sets the bar high. It calls on all governments to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ by 2030.
Cities are by far the primary source of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions globally. At the same time, the proportion of people living in cities is rapidly increasing, particularly in fast-growing cities in the developing world. As a result the way our cities are organized plays a key role in the quest to achieve inclusive and sustainable development.
WWF has been working for over fifty years globally on uniting people to protect the planet, through encouraging citizens and cities around the world to take small steps that will make a difference. For example, WWF’s Earth Hour City Challenge mobilizes action and support from cities in the global transition towards ‘a one-planet future’.

The challenge

Cities are faced with  huge demand for providing infrastructure that meets the social and economic needs of a rising urban population. In order to meet the economic and public health challenges of urban growth and control air and water pollution levels, cities will need to shift from high-carbon infrastructure to one that supports inclusive economic development and poverty eradication, while improving citizens’ quality of life.

In particular, cities in developing economies, especially in Africa and Asia, are set to experience the most rapid acceleration in urbanization, compared with their regional counterparts. This represents a window of opportunity to promote infrastructure solutions associated with low pollution levels, positive social impacts and reduced running costs.

Given the early stage of their infrastructure development efforts, developing nations must be supported in to the transition toward renewable energy sources and low-carbon solutions that unlock their potential to offer sustainable, attractive and low carbon lifestyles for all.

Importance of urban planning
The first step in such efforts is holistic, long-term national urban planning. The effect of urban planning on greenhouse gas emissions is clearly illustrated by comparing transport emissions in the United States and Europe. Since the 1950s, a period during which the U.S. experienced a high urbanization rate, most cities have been planned to accommodate personal car transport. In contrast, European cities were largely planned before the widespread ownership of cars, and as a result, have almost a third of the transportation emissions per capita than the U.S.

Act now

The challenge of urban sustainability will increasewith time in particular as more and more people move into cities and aspire to achieve developed-economy lifestyles. The future of people and the planet will largely be determined by how day-to-day urban life evolves. Hence the need to act now towards ensuring more sustainable consumption choices, low carbon urban innovations and the right policies for a future where people live in harmony with nature.

Discover more of what we do on sustainable cities on: Download our reports: WWF is also engaged in a number of collaborative efforts to support transparent and comparable reporting of cities and increase access to finance for transformative city climate action. Find out more on these initiatives on:
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