A city is a constellation of forces, a map of relational dynamics tracing human need, aspiration, action, and invention, a wager against bleak limitation, and a beacon in the darkness that shows a network of souls have gathered to pool their imaginations. A city can be of any size; it is a polity—a civic space where people come together to make the world they will inhabit.

There are cities of 20 people with the ambition to reach other worlds and the wisdom that comes with knowing deeply the limitations of place, and there are mega-cities of tens of millions who will never know how so many people came to live so near to them, because the reasons are all so different and the personal interests so divergent. And sometimes, these megacities are more local in their focus than anyone in cities large or small could imagine, that focus driven by the sheer time-cost of even thinking beyond the city limits. In one after another study, we are hearing that urbanization is the great challenge of the first half of the 21st century.

The Industrial Revolution has run its course, and now we talk about countries that will industrialize without the old high-polluting energy production methods. We talk about sustainable development in which poverty is no longer commonplace, and where work is dignified and rewarding and institutions protect and expand the liberty and the dignity of all people. Some believe this age of hyper-urbanization and ex-urbanization marks the end of many thousands of years of an agrarian model for human existence. And yet, we will be more people than ever on planet Earth, with a higher demand for production-intensive food sources. And just when all of this is happening, as we are moving further away from routine contact with nature, we need to make our conscious relationship with natural life-support systems more intimate than it has ever been.

The world faces trillions of dollars in shortfall in our budget for infrastructure maintenance and improvements. Infrastructure will likely be the driving economic engine of the coming decades, as it was for the United States from the mid 19th Century through the mid 20th Century. Quality of infrastructure investment and deployment will determine to what extent people are able to interact effectively with a global civilization that runs on knowledge, innovation, and networked dispersed collaborative capability.

Cities are concentrations of people, of overlapping entangled human interest, of infrastructure, and of energy consumption. They become hubs of innovation and change not from some sort of urban ideological predisposition, but rather from the pressure that ensues from so many people and wants and needs coming together in the same physical space, and motivated by the corresponding high concentration of technical capacity and capital for investment.

Taking into account the severe lag in funding for upgraded and new infrastructure, along with the mounting global macroeconomic pressures from rising income inequality and climate disruption, it is clear that urbanization is not only the great challenge of the first half of this century, but an opportunity for everywhere-active efficiency-oriented investment that will build value, capability, and wider influence for people where they live and breathe. Some of the same technological innovations that will allow us to power, heat and cool glass-clad skyscrapers will allow us to retrofit stone and concrete buildings and to reduce the external power-generation footprint of our handheld smart communications devices.

As with sea-faring, radio, space exploration, and the Internet, smart urbanization will yield critical innovations that will come together to solve previously intractable problems and suggest still further gains in efficiency, information-management, and communications capability. Solving the climate, energy, urban resource consumption, air, and water, challenges of our time is the unifying project for all human societies. Nothing outside of this project will do as much to create value in coming decades.

[ The Note for September 2016 ]

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Written by Joseph Robertson

Joseph is Global Strategy Director for the non-partisan non-profit Citizens' Climate Lobby. He coordinates the building of CCL's citizen engagement groups on 5 continents, leads the Citizens' Climate Engagement Network and represents CCL in the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, UNFCCC negotiations, and other UN processes. He is a member of the Executive Board of the UN-linked NGO Committee on Sustainable Development-NY and of the Policy and Strategy Group for the World We Want. He is also the founder of Geoversiv.net and the Geoversiv Foundation and the lead strategist supporting the high-level climate dialogue series Accelerating Progress, Advancing Innovation.

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