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Overview

Today, some 56% of the world’s population – 4.4 billion inhabitants – live in cities. This trend is expected to continue. By 2050, with the urban population more than doubling its current size, nearly 7 of 10 people in the world will live in cities.

With more than 80% of global GDP generated in cities, urbanization can contribute to sustainable growth if managed well by increasing productivity, allowing innovation and new ideas to emerge.

However, the speed and scale of urbanization brings challenges, including meeting accelerated demand for affordable housing, well-connected transport systems, and other infrastructure, basic services, as well as jobs, particularly for the nearly 1 billion urban poor who live in informal settlements to be near opportunities. Conflicts are on the rise, resulting in 60% of forcibly displaced people living in urban areas.

Once a city is built, its physical form and land use patterns can be locked in for generations, leading to unsustainable sprawl. The expansion of urban land consumption outpaces population growth by as much as 50%, which is expected to add 1.2 million km² of new urban built up area to the world in the three decades. Such sprawl puts pressure on land and natural resources, resulting in undesirable outcomes; cities consume two thirds of global energy consumption and account for more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions

Cities play an increasingly important role in tackling climate change, because their exposure to climate and disaster risk increases as they grow. Almost half a billion urban residents live in coastal areas, increasing their vulnerability to storm surges and sea level rise. In the 136 biggest coastal cities, there are 100 million people – or 20% of their population – and $4.7 trillion in assets exposed to coastal floods. Around 90% of urban expansion in developing countries is near hazard-prone areas and built through informal and unplanned settlements.

Cities are also in the frontline of combating epidemics. Cities across the globe are currently being tested to the extreme with the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is impacting not only public health but also the economy and social fabric. Simultaneously a health crisis, social crisis, and economic crisis, COVID-19 is laying bare how well cities are planned and managed and the impact this is having on the extent to which each city is able to function – or not – especially during times of crisis. 

COVID-19 is a massive challenge for cities on the frontline, rich and poor alike. The measures taken to control the spread of the virus are having massive implications on cities due to their economic structure, their preparedness for such a crisis – especially the state of their public health and service delivery systems – and the extent to which their population’s health and livelihoods are vulnerable, all of which are a function of the effectiveness of their urban governance systems.

In normal times, there might be many attributes that cities strive to compete on and excel at the global level, including livability, competitiveness, and sustainability, but in any given day and especially in a time of crisis, a city must function well for its citizens. 

Building cities that “work” – inclusive, healthy, resilient, and sustainable – requires intensive policy coordination and investment choices. National and local governments have an important role to play to take action now, to shape the future of their development, to create opportunities for all.

Last Updated: Apr 20,2020

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