The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
October 14, 2016

Will the cities of the future work for everyone?

A century ago, 1 in 10 people lived in urban areas; today, it’s more than half. By 2050, that fraction will rise to two thirds of the world’s population as cities of all sizes swell to accommodate an estimated 2.5 billion more urban dwellers.

What will cities look like in the future? Next week, researchers from the Urban Institute will join global leaders at the United Nations’ historic Habitat III conference to take stock of our progress in creating sustainable cities that meet the needs of all residents, and to get ahead of anticipated changes that will create both opportunities and challenges for city dwellers, our nations, and our planet.

The Habitat conference happens every 20 years, and this one occurs at a critical moment in human history. Because 60 percent of the land expected to be urban by 2030 has yet to be developed, how we shape the urban environment in the coming years will determine whether cities become drivers of innovation and economic growth, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability—or whether they deepen inequalities, stunt growth, and exacerbate climate risks.

Habitat III will bring together government officials, business leaders, researchers, community advocates, and organizers from across the globe to learn from each other about what is working and identify where we need to improve. The New Urban Agenda, which was negotiated by all UN member states and will be ratified in Quito, Ecuador, can help inspire and galvanize people and governments to pay closer attention to how rapid urbanization will shape the future.

However, turning inspiration into effective action will require a knowledge base upon which to measure, assess, and accelerate progress. Habitat III provides an opportunity to share what we’ve learned about a range of pressing global urban development issues, from women’s participation in informal economies to meeting the service needs of refugees to comparative models of affordable housing provision to the role of public finance in expanding access to sanitation. The Urban Institute will be working with colleagues in the research community and other stakeholders to design new platforms for sharing knowledge, innovation, and evidence on sustainable urban development.

Habitat III also provides a unique opportunity to reexamine urban policies and trends in US cities within a global frame. Here at home, our cities also continue to grow, but this growth is highly uneven both within and across regions.

While some cities are experiencing renewed investments and accelerated growth, others are losing both people and jobs. At both extremes (and everywhere in between), economic and social opportunities of our cities are not broadly shared. We have witnessed a rise in concentrated poverty since the Great Recession, and disparities between rich and poor neighborhoods are widening across metropolitan areas.  

When we use a global lens to consider our progress, we see that economic mobility in some US metropolitan areas is lower than for any developed country for which data are available, and that differences in life expectancies between neighborhoods within some US cities are greater than the differences between the richest and poorest nations. These are sobering reminders that we can and must improve.

But international comparisons are not just humbling—they also open up new possibilities. City leaders in public and private spheres can—and increasingly do—learn from their global counterparts, importing innovations first tested abroad. We expect that this type of transnational city-to-city learning will only increase in the future.

In response to new demands and fiscal constraints, city leaders are becoming more entrepreneurial, forging new public-private partnerships and becoming savvier about using technology and big data to improve service delivery and governance. Our own comparative research on policies for economic inclusion in cities across high-income countries sparked new ideas to test in US cities.

But of course, city governments can’t do it alone. It will require partnerships with nearby jurisdictions in their region, civil society, and the private sector, and aligning policies and incentives from the global to the national to local. Habitat III creates a forum not just to bring these diverse stakeholders together, but also to create new frameworks for ensuring that city leaders are at the forefront of sustainable development, both at home and abroad.

If you are also attending Habitat III, please join the Urban Institute for a series of timely, insightful and lively discussions with leaders from across the globe. On Monday, we will discuss our review of low-income housing policies in Latin America at a Side Event hosted by Habitat for Humanity International, “Evidence from Practice for Action: Ensuring Informed Implementation of the New Urban Agenda” (October 17, 11am-12pm, at main conference venue in Urban Future Room). On Tuesday, we will host a Networking Event with the OECD on “Localizing the SDGs: How Cities Can Help Achieve the 2030 Agenda” (October 18, 2pm-4pm, at the main conference venue in Room R18). On Thursday, we will host a special session with the Kresge Foundation on “Inclusive Economies in Slow-Growth and Shrinking Cities” at the Next City World Stage

Illustration via Shutterstock


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.