Alice Charles, community lead of infrastructure and urban development industry at the World Economic Forum, speaking at a ULI event in Brussels.

Alice Charles, community lead of infrastructure and urban development industry at the World Economic Forum, speaking at a ULI event in Brussels.

The cities of the future embrace the principles of being inclusive, being mindful, and sharing, says Alice Charles, community lead for infrastructure and urban development at the World Economic Forum. She shared practical examples of these cities at ULI Belgium’s recent conference in Brussels.

In 1950, just one-third of the world’s population lived in cities, but by 2016 that number had grown to more than half—54.5 percent, according to United Nations numbers; and by 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. That growth was the focus of the Habitat III summit last fall in Quito, Equador, which resulted in the New Urban Agenda framework adopted by the United Nations this past January.

Most of that growth will take place in the global south, with India surpassing China in population by 2022. Urbanization is reaching a fever pitch in China, where the proportion of urban residents is expected to reach 60 percent 2020. But “infrastructure is not being provided in tandem with development,” Charles said, and social inclusion relies on infrastructure. Stresses on infrastructure are rapidly increasing: by 2030, there will be 40 percent more demand for water than supply. By 2040, there will be a 25 percent increase in demand for energy.

“Climate change is a push factor to cities—in India a drought drove farmers to nearby cities’ slums,” Charles said. But climate change is also a risk to cities because so many are located near sea level.

Increasing Inclusivity

Economic dynamics of cities can create greater inclusion—people are moving to cities for freedom of speech and expression. The cultural diversity of cities allows us to break down stereotypes based on race, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation and to create strong networks.

The biggest takeaway from Habitat III was that creating sustainable urbanization has to involve city governments, not just federal governments, Charles said. “All stakeholders need to hold city leaders and national leaders to account for inclusion,” she said.

Huge rises in inequality in large and small cities alike are leading to increasing crime, and “we’re seeing slum persistence in cities,” Charles said. In the West, the issue of affordability is always looming. “City planning needs to be integrated with all areas of society. The pathway to inclusion is going out of your way to reach hard-to-find people.”

In Medellín, Colombia, for example, a succession of mayors pushed for better public transportation for far-flung parts of the city. The resulting cable car system has connected geographically and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city, and transit projects similar to Metrocable have since been implemented in La Paz, Bolivia, and near Mexico City.

Mindfulness and Sharing

The World Health Organization says that mental health issues caused by city living will greatly increase by 2030. So it is important for cities to be designed mindfully and to encourage mindfulness among residents. The World Economic Forum recently created a list of the world’s most mindful cities, compiling data from sources including the U.N. World Happiness Report, the OECD Better Life Index, and the World Bank’s World Development Indicators, among others. At the top of the list was Aarhus, a medium-sized city in Denmark with a goal to become CO2-neutral by 2030.

The sharing economy allows people to do more with less in a city. Whether it is online peer-to-peer platforms or making spare space accessible, city leaders should be creating space for innovation. Charles noted that the biggest concerns currently are how to regulate the sharing economy and ensure that it is fair, data-driven, and flexible, while working in the larger regulatory system.

A number of cities have already made sharing a major focus: Seoul in 2012 and Amsterdam in 2015 kicked off a global trend that has led to a new foundation called the Sharing Cities Alliance.

Charles’s research in the next year will focus much on the regulation of the sharing economy. “Business and government coming together is great, but we need to include civil society as well,” she says.