The Future of Cities: The Urban Burden or the Urban Oasis?

If you live in LA, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, DC, Chicago, or any major US city, you are familiar with the awful, day-destroying traffic problems we already face. I hate sitting in dead-lock, endless tail-light traffic or getting on a metro train that is so crammed full, any train movement sends people stumbling and stepping on each other’s toes.

We’re living in a time of population growth, climate change, and disruptive technologies. By 2030, the global urban population is set to hit 5 billion. The UN and the WHO predict that by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban areas. To put some context on what that looks like, Tokyo currently has around 38 million residents, Delhi 25 million, New York 20 million, Shanghai 23 million, San Francisco Bay Area 8 million, LA metro area 13 million, and San Diego 3 million. What, then, are the major urban challenges we’re facing?

Health and Wellbeing

If you’ve ever been to a crowded gym sauna or steam room, chances are you’ve heard plenty of sniffles and coughs. It makes sense – the heat eases stuffy noses or blocked sinuses – but I find the thought somewhat unpleasant. All I can think about is the spread of disease. There is an association between the spreading of diseases and population density: thus, the denser cities become, the faster and easier diseases will spread. More sick people in a smaller area adds demand to healthcare services and also disrupts work and school.

The US also has an aging population, as do many other countries, which is also set to add increased demand to healthcare services. Older populations tend to depend more on non-private modes of transport for their mobility, thus there will also be an increased demand on transport. While Lyft and Uber are disrupting the transport industry, the question becomes will the reduction of vehicles on the road from the elderly population outweigh the number of vehicles that support the increased demand for transport? There’s a possibility that traffic will get even worse.

Urban areas can be great for bringing life, community, activities, events, and entertainment. However, it’s important to consider mental health in crowded places: how do you create and preserve positive community? What does inclusion look like? How do you provide enough green spaces and areas of respite despite space restraints?


Many cities around the world and in the US can’t build houses and buildings fast enough. We need to speed the process of building, which will require new technologies and the cooperation of government. It’s little use if we can 3D print a house in 24 hours but spend 6 months getting the correct permits from the local government office.

More houses in tight areas means more people consuming electricity and thus a higher demand or even strain placed on the grid. Many cities already increase prices during peak hours to incentive reduced energy consumption and thus ease the demand on the grid. It would be great if buildings and houses became self-sufficient from solar panels – that might work in a state with high insolation, like California, but Maine might struggle.

Building housing isn’t just about providing a roof, floor, and basic utilities. It’s also about design, private vs public space, life and community, and livability. Millennials are fans of experiences and community, as evidenced by the rise of The Collective in London, WeLive in New York, and StarCity in San Francisco. New housing needs to consider how good design can nurture community-building while providing living conditions that are at minimum acceptable. That’s all fine and well for developed countries, but in many developing countries, millions of people live in urban areas in slums that lack clean water or a sewer system. Housing in urban areas ties to the urban economy, government funds, and real estate investors: there’s no simple or easy solution to slums.

Cities in the US need to be careful about the cost of living. Will San Francisco, New York, and DC only get worse for the cost of living or will they become the norm as cities become denser. Recently, thousands have been moving out of the Bay Area, so much so that the price of U-Hauls has skyrocketed. Rent has become too high for many, so, in keeping with basic microeconomics, demand is dropping.

Homelessness is also a great concern for urban areas as populations increase. A higher urban population is associated with a higher quantity of people living in poverty or homeless, and as of today, the vast majority of cities don’t have the infrastructure to support them. Los Angeles has one of the highest ratios of homeless persons to total population, along with San Diego and San Jose, though New York has the highest count of homeless persons. Knowing that the future will only see an increase in urban population, how can we reduce homelessness? Finding solutions isn’t just the job of city planners but will require cooperation across government areas and public-private partnerships.

Use of Space

Berlin is an interesting example of use of urban space. Since a large part of the city was destroyed during World War II, the city had the opportunity to re-build and re-design parts of the city. Today, it has a significantly large amount of green space: urban parks, wetlands and stream corridors, street trees, gardens, bike/walking trails, farms, and cemeteries. As cities grow, it’s important to keep ratios of space in mind for the sake of enjoyable urban living for all – as much as is possible.

It’s also important to consider spacial justice: who has access to what space and when? Are slums only for the poor and the nice parks only for the rich? Is that spacial justice?

Shared Economies

Higher population density, along with the Millennial attitudes, offers a great opportunity for more shared economies. Turo, Airbnb, and JustPark area great examples of how people don’t need to own everything they need anymore but can own collectively or rent locally from those who have needed items. Terdle and SpinLister are great examples of local shared economies for household goods or sports equipment, respectively.

Carbon Emissions

This past summer in California was not great in terms of air quality. It concerns me when the news announces warnings and tells me to not do any outdoor sports. Should I even breathe the air where I live?! Increasing urban populations also increases vehicles, busses, and air pollution in concentrated areas, so what changes do cities need to make with respect to their infrastructure and policies to properly address carbon emissions?


Building and maintaining city infrastructure is expensive: bridges, train/tram systems, busses, and roads/highways all cost millions of dollars. As it turns out, they account for less than 10% of local and state budgets in the US. Given the future of cities, will people have access to affordable, reliable forms of mobility? Mobility in cities that lack robust public transport systems is a big issues and investors are putting millions behind possible solutions such as Lime Bike, Lyft, or autonomous vehicles.

Infrastructure also includes utilities, namely water, electricity, and gas. Similar to electricity, an increase in population also brings an increased demand on a city’s water system. Will the population have enough clean drinking water? Is there an adequate sewer system in place to handle an increase in wastewater? Multiple UC startups are tackling both problems: Global Water Farms, GreenBlu, Greyble, MICROrganic Technologies, Oswald Green Technologies, and Water Health International. Waste disposal can be costly, as London well knows. Its infamous fatbergs cost millions of pounds to remove. Vancouver spends $2 million a year in removing fatbergs and it has a population less than a tenth of that of London.


Contrary to infrastructure spending, spending on services accounts for the majority of local and state spending. Education, public welfare, law enforcement, emergency services, and hospitals consume most of American cities’ budgets. It’s no surprise that an increase in urban population means an increase in demand for all of the services cities provide, only the challenges are intertwined with ones previously mentioned. A higher demand for emergency response becomes difficult to meet when traffic conditions become worse. If living conditions aren’t positive or sustainable, crime rises, increasing the demand even further on law enforcement: the lack of spending in one area can increase spending in another. Higher education faces challenges in urban areas as demand increases but space doesn’t: where do students live if there’s already a housing shortage? UC Berkeley faces exactly this challenge as they’re already at maximum housing capacity but still facing a growing student population.


As New York well knows, job opportunities for youth in urban areas aren’t keeping up with the youth population. The city is making a concentrated effort to create employment for young people, decrease the skills gap, and increase entrepreneurship opportunities and incentives. While some urban economies favor those with more experience and thus shut out youth, some urban economies in America struggle with unemployment due to industry shifts. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, has seen its urban population decrease, largely due to a lack of jobs in an area that depended heavily on mining and industries that have significantly decreased or left. Unemployment can be a large driver of urban population decrease, similar to how unaffordable housing is driving out some Bay Area residents. Urban areas are thus faced with questions of how to stimulate economic growth such that those who benefit are the ones who need it: those in large industry shifts, unemployment, or disadvantaged communities.

Social, Wealth, and Power Dynamics

Many cities face multicultural challenges as the movement of people and people groups becomes more fluid in the 21st century. Cultural differences can easily create friction among communities, leading to the question: how do you address gentrification, segregation, and cultural microcommunities in urban planning? What are the root causes and how can urban areas and infrastructure be designed such that they minimize cultural challenges and promote empathy?

Along similar lines, a higher population density combined with an increasing income divide poses questions about what is socially fair and just. Who makes decisions at the government level and is government representative of the population or is it skewed to one end of the income spectrum? Will power go to the wealthy and not the poor despite America being a democracy? Will urban population increase serve as a vehicle for economic mobility or income divide entrenchment?

Financing the Urban City

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges cities face is how to finance solutions to the challenges they face. Unless taxes increase or costs reduce through technology and efficiency gains, the amount of money per resident won’t change much for each urban area. Large infrastructure projects and long-term investments can be financed at the city, state, and federal level with input from corporate and philanthropic industries, but financing increase in services demands becomes more challenging. Undoubtedly, the US faces a challenge compared to other cities such as those in Europe where taxation is higher but equally urban residents expect more to be provided. Compared to cities in developing countries, the US is doing well, but then again, it is a developed nation and has already spent enormous amounts in building infrastructure and services.

Overcoming Challenges Determined by Business and Government

In short, whether or not urban areas overcome the challenges facing them for the next few decades depends on both the government and industry. Timely policy adjustment is important to helping urban areas change as needed and in light of technological advancements. Will policy that regulates urban areas keep up such that it fosters positive urban living?

The biggest threat, though, to overcoming urban challenges is a lack of planning. Are cities, governments, planners, and services providers actively planning for the city of the future? Are they applying systems thinking and simulation tools to urban development? With increasing complexity of decisions, are they making use of decision making tools and software so that decisions are made in the best interest of their current and future populations?

On a positive note, one of the biggest opportunities in overcoming urban challenges lies in public-private partnerships and private companies filling the role of public services. A competitive market does well to increase efficiency and induce innovation, so employing services for waste removal, for example, or snow removal, may not be a bad thing.

Globally, we face enormous challenges in creating stable and livable urban areas over the next 20 years. In America, not all cities will be affected, and not all will be affected with the same rate or intensity, but without a doubt, urban living will change as disruptive technologies move in and cultural trends change.

Image: Pixabay

Source: LinkedIn

This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat.