At the dawn of the 20th century, the five largest cities of the world told a story of Western economic dominance and embodied an even bigger phenomenon: the rise of urbanization. The Industrial Revolution of the preceding century, coupled with rapidly growing trade and European colonization, brought considerable wealth to the United States, Britain, France and Germany.
According to the United Nations, in the year 1800 only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in cities or towns. By 1900, it was 15 percent. Today, it is 55 percent, but the world’s largest and fastest-growing urban centers are no longer in the West, but in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The five biggest cities today are Tokyo, Delhi, Shanghai, Sao Paolo and Mexico City. The top five from 1900 – London, New York, Paris, Berlin and Chicago – don’t even make today’s top 10.
The relentless march to urbanization is equally true of the Middle East and North Africa, where more than 60 percent of the population – higher than the global average – lives in cities, and the region boasts three megacities of 10 million or more: Cairo, Tehran and Istanbul. Baghdad is expected to hit megacity status by 2030 and Riyadh is not far off, either. In many ways, the story of the Middle East and North Africa region over the past five decades is the story of urbanization.
If run well, big cities can be powerful forces for economic growth, jobs, consumer demand and innovation. They can also foment danger, unrest and, ultimately, tragedy if central governments wreck their economies. The mismanagement by a venal political class of Beirut, one of the most vibrant cities in the Middle East, is a case in point. As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the global economy, sparking recessions, bankrupting businesses, inflicting tragic loss of life and immense upheaval, some of our most disruption-proof trends are being tested in unprecedented ways.
Urbanization is about as disruption-proof as you can get. Cities have shrugged off the devastating wars of the 20th century and just about every other “disruption” thrown at them, from global recessions to pandemics. But will Covid-19 do for urbanization what they did not? Are we likely to witness the de-urbanization of our world?
Trying to predict the way ahead these days is like a man falling off a 100-storey building and declaring “so far, so good” when he is half-way down. But it’s worth remembering how resilient cities are and also how vital they still are to a prosperous future. Major cities account for most of a country’s GDP and growth and therefore much of the job creation. They also are central to the innovation that will support the new technologies, from medicines to protective equipment, that will help all of us weather the Covid-19 storm.
Cholera epidemics in 19th century Europe led to modern urban sanitation systems that were adopted worldwide. The devastation caused by the bubonic plague in the 14th century was reason enough to avoid cities forever, but all over Europe, even the hardest-hit conurbations charged back to life within a few decades. On the whole, the advantages of city life outweigh the risks.
Westerners may romanticize Asian or African village life, but the people who actually live in those villages have been fleeing to cities in their hundreds of millions for decades. As Daniel Biau, a former UN official and one of the world’s foremost experts on cities, notes: “Cities are above all places of job opportunities, social interactions, education and cultural development… Historically, cities mainly shrink for economic reasons, rarely for environmental causes.”
Biau also notes how cities have seized the initiative in responding to the crisis. “Africa innovates every day. Since March 2020, private companies and micro-entrepreneurs have been producing millions of face masks while wealthier countries were waiting for Chinese exports. Hand-washing stations have been spontaneously established in many slums.”
What of the trend toward digitization and working remotely, particularly in advanced economies? These trends are likely to accelerate as a result of Covid-19 while urbanization in Western countries will probably slow down but not stop altogether. In Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East – home to 85 percent of the world’s population – the vast majority of people do not have the luxury of working remotely. They will need to stay where the jobs are (not to mention the internet bandwidth) – in cities.
What the urban centers need today are more robust policies that acknowledge the quandary at the heart of Covid-19: populous cities are simultaneously the places where the virus spreads fastest and the vital battleground from which to combat it – all while also supporting prosperity. This is just as true of Cairo and Karachi as it is of Los Angeles and London. De-urbanization might solve a short-term problem, but it will create a slew of new ones.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and editor and founder of the “New Silk Road Monitor.”