Resources & Climate

The Security of Cities: Development, Environment, and Conflict on an Urbanizing Planet

in Program

Humankind recently crossed an important threshold: over half of all people now live in cities. In contrast to most of human history, cities have become the default condition for human habitation almost everywhere on earth. Our species, in other words, is already an urban one and will become even more so throughout the twenty-first century. Urbanization is proceeding rapidly and at unprecedented scales in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Urbanization in Latin America has already reached levels rivaling Europe, North America, and Australia. These trends are ongoing. By 2030, all of the world’s developing regions, including Africa, will have more people living in cities than in rural areas. Between 2010 and 2050, the world’s urban population is expected to grow by 3 billion people-a figure roughly equal to the world’s total population in 1950-with the great majority of these new additions living in developing-world cities.

These statistics relay an important truth. During the twenty-first century, cities will increasingly shape social, political, economic, and environmental conditions everywhere on earth. Cities are powerful drivers of environmental change at the local, regional, and global scales. For example, urban processes of all kinds create local water and air pollution. Regionally, cities draw natural resources from far-flung hinterlands (energy, water, wood and forest products, fish, and agricultural products to name only a few). Globally, cities consume 60-80% of all energy used on earth and release about the same share of CO2 into the atmosphere. At the same time, cities and their inhabitants are greatly affected by all of these changes. Local pollution burdens, for example, most often fall heaviest on the poorest residents of poor cities. A city’s demand for regional resources places strains on ecosystems hundreds or even thousands of miles distant. Global climate change adds to the mix of problems, increasing coastal flooding risks for low-lying cities, exacerbating urban heat island effects, and increasing the frequency of heat wave-related mass fatalities.

Given the swift pace and enormous scale of global urbanization, cities must become an increasingly important part of the foreign and security policy discussions. Urbanization intersects with multiple issues that are well within the environmental security arena, including food security, human security, energy security, climate change, freshwater use, coastal-zone problems, public health and disease, and natural disaster planning and relief from drought, flooding, earthquakes, and storms. It also intersects with more traditional foreign and security issues, including those focused on economic development and trade as well as those focused on violence, conflict, and political instability-civil and international conflict, terrorism, state fragility, and global trafficking in drugs, weapons, and human beings (peonage, sex slavery, etc.).

Click here to download the full working paper this Spotlight is based on.

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