From Prosperity to Sustainability: World Cities Report 2020

Like the majority of city dwellers I am a migrant. Eight years ago I relocated from Melbourne, Australia, to George Town on Penang Island in northern Malaysia. Both cities are recognised internationally for their liveability, amenities, culture, heritage, food, innovation economies and natural assets. They offer prosperity and improved wellbeing for the majority of their citizenry. In many ways they are model cities.

Late 2019 I had the privilege of visiting Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya to provide inputs into the World Cities Report 2020. While both are very different cities to George Town and Melbourne, they all share a culture of hospitality and friendliness, and a history of British colonialism and migration. Mombasa is a coastal port city with a historic downtown and is a jump-off point for safaris and beach holidays. Nairobi was founded as a rail depot by the British in the late 19th century and is now the largest city in Kenya – having doubled in size in the last two decades. With its subtropical highland climate and vibrant economy, it is highly attractive to all manner of migrants, including a large expatriate community. 

It was here eight years ago that the United Nation’s Human Settlements Programme or UN-Habitat published the State of the World’s Cities 2012/2013. At the time the number of global urban citizens had just exceeded half of the total world population. Off the back of protests in urban centres around the world it was evident that the lure of the city was not delivering benefits for all or harvesting the potential that they could offer. 

The opening sentence in the foreword of that report was “This is a time of crises” with the need for a more holistic and sustainable approach to urban development as the central publication theme. Subtitled Prosperity of Cities, there was an explicit acknowledgement that urbanisation itself, if rethought and managed well, could transform lives for the better. The ‘wheel of prosperity’ was the multidimensional measure by which the potential of cities could be benchmarked – we just needed to shift focus and change what we valued. These themes prevailed in the World Cities Report 2016 with more emphasis on urban planning and urban services. 

Fast forward to 31 October 2020. We are amidst an even deeper crisis – one that has socio-cultural, economic, environmental and health dimensions. A reflection of that reality is that in cities around the world, a digital event will take place to celebrate World Cities Day and launch the World Cities Report 2020. The report itself is an important milestone. It is the first report card since Habitat III and the global commitment to sustainable urbanisation under the New Urban Agenda. It is being launched during a pandemic where most of the world is living with some form of movement restriction – with background noise around the future of urbanism – and a concern that for the first time in decades the number of people living in extreme poverty will increase. 

It is important to recognise that COVID-19 isn’t an external threat to urbanisation; it is an externality of modern industrial society. Rapid and uncontrolled urban sprawl encroaching into natural systems has again led to the transmission of a zoonotic disease to humans  –  and in this case spread rapidly due to the hypermobility that sustained the pre-pandemic economy. It has exposed the inadequacies of many of our institutions and has shone light onto our most vulnerable and our failure to protect them. In the face of this adversity, we have managed to endure – with many of us working from home, participating in online events, homeschooling and learning to live with the risks of the ‘new normal’. 

The World Cities Report 2020 does not ignore these realities. It has been cleverly redrafted and re-couched in the last months with these realities in mind. It offers this moment as a chance to reset and ‘build back better’ with clear links to calls from others for a new form of capitalism – one focused on stakeholders rather than shareholders. The key message is that the collective actions of cities – its leaders and citizens – must coalesce with urgency and transform the way we interact with nature and each other, radically address inequality and significantly reduce our carbon footprints. 

The solutions offered are practical – the use of technology to solve urban problems; introducing new forms of mobility; harnessing the talents of migrants; tailored programmes for the vulnerable; and nature-based solutions to help adapt to climate change to name a few. Floating above these is an implicit call for systemic institutional change. The report card for cities has not improved in many areas, and the failings rest in the fact that many institutions simply do not have the capacities. Local government is rightly identified as the agency most likely to drive the New Urban Agenda and where the focus ought to be. 

Come 2024 the next World Cities Report will be published. What will be the key theme? Hopefully it will be a showcase of cities around the world that have fully embraced sustainable urbanisation principles following the lead of places like Paris, which have turned their back on the car and are converting streets to cycling boulevards; or a city like Medellín in Colombia, that has invested heavily in nature-based solutions; or any number of cities around the world aspiring to be carbon neutral. 

Where will I be living? My rational side would say in a city that has fully harnessed the ‘wheel of prosperity’ that cities offer. However, as a planner/geographer by profession it is likely that I will be drawn to any number of cities that will still be struggling with the challenges of urbanisation. At the very least, it is likely that there will be more examples to inspire them and roadmaps to help them get there. The World Cities Report 2020 is an essential read for those on that journey. 

A version of this article originally appeared on the Thomson-Reuters Foundation website.

Dr. Matt Benson is an Australian geographer specialising in complex systems and human settlements. He is a Programme Director for Think City and is based in Penang, Malaysia. 

Stay tuned to The Citymaker for more World Cities Report linked content throughout NovemberYou can download and read the World Cities Report 2020 here.


Dr Matt Benson

Dr. Matt Benson is an Australian geographer specialising in complex systems and human settlements. He is a Programme Director for Think City and is based in Penang, Malaysia.