Although history is not usually taught this way, one could argue that cities have played a more important role in shaping the world than empires. From Athens and Rome to Paris and Venice to Baghdad and Beijing, urban ideas and innovators have left indelible marks on human life. By concentrating the brainpower of humanity in relatively small geographic areas, cities have promoted the kinds of interactions that nurture creativity and technological advances. They have been the drivers of progress throughout history, and now—as the knowledge economy takes full flight—they are poised to play a leading role in addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century.
One hundred years ago, some two out of every ten people on the planet lived in urban areas. By 1990, some four in ten did. Today, more than half of the world’s population dwells in urban areas, and by the time a child now entering primary school turns 40, nearly 70 percent will. That means that in the next few decades, about 2.5 billion more people will become metropolitan residents.
The world’s first Metropolitan Generation is coming of age, and as a result, the world will be shaped increasingly by metropolitan values: industriousness, creativity, entrepreneurialism, and, most important, liberty and diversity. That is a hopeful development for humanity, and an overpowering counterweight to the forces of repression and intolerance that arise out of religious fanaticism and that now pose a grave threat to the security of democratic nations.
As those in the Metropolitan Generation assume leadership positions, cities will become not just more culturally significant but also more politically powerful. Influence will shift gradually away from national governments and toward cities, especially in countries that suffer from bureaucratic paralysis and political gridlock.
This trend has already emerged, and it is most pronounced in the United States. Congress began reducing funding for infrastructure in the late 1960s, a mistake that, coupled with the loss of manufacturing jobs, dealt a devastating blow to cities. Nevertheless, federal divestment also produced an important benefit: cities eventually recognized that the best replacement for lost federal funding was local policy innovation.
Cities across the globe have come to the same conclusion. As a result, many of the most important new initiatives of this century—from the smoking ban adopted in New York City to the bus rapid transit system pioneered in Bogotá—have emerged from cities. Mayors are turning their city halls into policy labs, conducting experiments on a grand scale and implementing large-scale ideas to address problems, such as climate change, that often divide and paralyze national governments.
Climate change calls on societies to act quickly, and cities tend to be more nimble than national governments, which are more likely to be captured or neutralized by special interest groups and which tend to view problems through an ideological, rather than a pragmatic, lens.
The need for swift action and the risks associated with climate change are well documented. The rise in sea levels is indisputable, as is the warming of the oceans. Both can multiply the intensity of storms and the damage done to coastal cities, as New York City experienced in 2012 with Hurricane Sandy. In addition, the scientific consensus holds that hotter temperatures are likely to produce major disruptions in agriculture and increase disease, displacing communities and threatening the survival of species that play integral roles in both the ecosystem and the food chain.
Ignoring these threats would merely pass the true costs of today’s economic progress onto the next generation. Throughout U.S. history, successive generations have made sacrifices so that their children might enjoy a higher standard of living. Today, the whole world is confronted with the need to put future generations first, but this time, no sacrifice is necessary. In fact, the most effective methods of fighting climate change are also the best means of improving public health and raising standards of living.
Traditionally, urban economic development has focused on retaining industries and luring new businesses with incentive packages. But in the new century, a different and far more effective model has emerged: focusing first and foremost on creating the conditions that attract people. As cities are increasingly demonstrating, talent attracts capital more effectively than capital attracts talent. People want to live in communities that offer healthy and family-friendly lifestyles: not only good schools and safe streets but also clean air, beautiful parks, and extensive mass transit systems. And where people want to live, businesses want to invest.
For mayors, reducing carbon pollution is not an economic cost; it is a competitive necessity. Earlier this year, Beijing announced that it would close its coal-fired power plants because any marginal financial benefit they offered was swamped by their net costs, including those of health care and forgone economic investment. Dirty air is a major liability for a city’s business environment.
Beijing is just the latest city to reduce its carbon footprint for economic reasons. In fact, one of the biggest changes in urban governance in this century has been mayors’ recognition that promoting private investment requires protecting public health. The congruence between health and economic goals is also the biggest development in the fight against climate change.
No longer do mayors see the economy and the environment primarily as conflicting priorities. Instead, they view them as two sides of the same coin. That is why mayors have so enthusiastically embraced the challenge of tackling climate change as a means to economic growth, and they have many tools at their disposal for doing so. For instance, the simple act of planting trees can help cool neighborhoods and clean the air. In New York City, in 2007, we created a public-private partnership with nonprofit organizations and businesses to plant one million trees across the city.
Modernizing transportation networks offers the clearest—and, in many cases, biggest—environmental and economic benefits to cities. From the introduction of steam engines in New York City to cable cars in San Francisco, cities have always been innovators when it comes to transportation. In recent years, bike-sharing programs have given cities entirely new mass transit networks, and more cities are investing in electric buses, fuel-efficient taxi fleets, and electronic vehicle charging stations.
Buildings offer another important opportunity for progress. From London to Seoul, major cities have begun wide-scale retrofits of their existing buildings, installing everything from LED lighting to heating and cooling systems that draw their energy from the earth beneath the buildings. In New York, we encouraged building owners to paint their roofs white to save on cooling costs, which, together with many other steps, helped the city reduce its carbon footprint by 19 percent in just eight years.
Cities are also playing a leading role in adapting to climate change. For example, the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, the area hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, has become a national leader in rooftop solar power adoption. Mumbai, recognizing the storm surge protection provided by mangroves, has moved effectively to protect and nurture them. And in New York City, after Hurricane Sandy, we developed and began implementing a comprehensive long-term plan for mitigating the effects of major storms.
Press link for more: Michael Bloomberg | foreignaffairs.com