There are currently 7.8 billion people in the world and more than half of them live in cities. Clearly, cities play a vital role in the world’s ecosystem and shape the majority of the global population’s daily lives. We might even refer to cities as living organisms, constantly transforming and changing, as if with a mind of their own. They are a melting pot of different trajectories, ideas, opportunities, dreams and connections. But, what makes a city a city? And what challenges are they faced with in the 21st century?

A quick history

Cities have always been at the core of innovation and change. With the discovery of agriculture, the first human settlements popped up, mainly around rivers and fertile lands. These areas slowly began to consolidate themselves as important trade centers and saw themselves as the focal points of political and religious power. The settlements saw the creation of societies that share many of the fundamentals we see in our societies today. 

It was once vital for these cities to be built around riverways, harbors, mines, or oil fields. As history progressed and the Industrial Revolution took hold, massive migrations began from the countryside to the big city. This type of economy no longer required these resources in the same way, highlighting a turning point that marks the shift towards cities becoming what we know them as now.

Cities as pioneers of society

The cities of the modern world occupy about 2% of the land and play a fundamental role in shaping humanity’s progress. They represent the future and are places where making a difference is possible. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, leaps in economic prosperity were made, continuing into the present day.

The cities of today are rapidly growing hubs of knowledge, new ideas and industrial services. They are ecosystems, containing many systems on top of each other and groups of networks that come together. They are often centers of health and education—places to drive innovation. 

Cities, historically and presently, drive society forward.

Big cities: a reflection of human challenges?

While cities have always nurtured change, there must always be a flipside. Big cities represent the complexity of humanity, with individual stories and narratives weaving through each other, coexisting as the epicenters of society. 

Unfortunately, this cannot stop social, economic and environmental challenges from impacting big cities. Inevitably, people flock to live in big cities, as we saw in the Industrial Revolution, which leads to a plethora of problems. Lack of space, low quality of living and a demand for access to certain services are but a few of the issues that plague the modern world. 

According to the United Nations, 70% of the world’s population will live in urban settlements by 2050. The rapid urbanization of cities is increasing the number of poorer neighborhoods and placing immense pressure on already inadequate infrastructures and services.

The cities that face the biggest problems are those in the developing world. Around 25% of the world’s population, 1 billion people, live in informal, overcrowded settlements, known as slums or favelas. 

Climate change and cities

The United Nations has set out global agendas, including tackling challenges faced by urban societies and looking at the role that cities will play in our future world. Climate change affects seven out of 10 cities on an urban level. Fighting against the effects of climate change in turn affects energy, buildings, waste management and transportation. 

Across the world, mayors of major cities are attempting to share initiatives and ask for support in these global agendas, which rely on local action. In order to create and live in the cities we want, cities which understand the impact of climate change on the world at large, we must rely on local stakeholders. 

Platforms where ideas can be shared and exchanged, addressing the fight against climate, health, social and economic change are vital in enacting this change. Above all, knowledge is needed to create solutions to challenges faced by both present and future cities. Not one part of the city can act to find these solutions alone. 

Looking to the future

Cities will continue to progress in a rapidly changing world, faced with issues that are worsening with time. Solutions are being looked for, and it has highlighted the increasing importance of relying on synergies between public institutions and academic institutions in the private sector, to work together to shape big cities into pioneers of the future. Not one part of a city can operate on its own, cities must come together to impact lasting change.

Do you want to play a role in driving the future of cities? Learn more about our Bachelor’s Degree in Urban Studies!