The Big Burg Theory

Say "cities" and the negative associations come cascading out: noise, dirt, housing projects, shantytowns, concrete, crowding, crime, drugs, pollution, gridlock, stress, alienation. For many decades, people in the developed world flocked to live outside cities in suburbs or way out in the countryside, where they could escape all of that and have a yard and a garage to boot.

Yet for all the appeal of birdsong and backyard barbecues, the global trend is now firmly pointing in the other direction. At some moment in 2008, somewhere in the world, yet another person from a suburb or exurb moved to an urban area and tipped the scales of history; for the first time ever, more than half of the world's population was living in towns and cities, according to the United Nations Population Fund. At this rate, around five billion of the world's inhabitants will be urban by 2030 -- that's around 60 percent of the projected 8.3 billion population, compared with just 3 percent in 1800.

The headliners of this trend are the megacities. Already in 2012 there were 26 metropolitan areas with populations of 10 million or more. Topping the list is Tokyo-Yokohama, Japan, with 37 million, followed by Jakarta, Indonesia, with 26 million. The tristate area of New York-New Jersey-Connecticut stands in seventh position with more than 20 million, while Paris is the only European city on the list, in 25th place with almost 11 million.

India has three megacities on the list, with the Delhi area in fourth place (more than 22 million), Mumbai in 13th (almost 17 million) and Kolkata in 18th (more than 14 million). No surprises there, but India is far from done with its urbanization. As big as its cities are, only one-third of Indians live in urban settings; between now and 2030 an additional 250 million Indians are expected to move from the countryside to towns and cities.

Despite the prominence of megacities, the U.N. forecasts that most upcoming urban growth will happen in "smaller" towns and cities -- always bearing in mind that what counts as a small city in global terms these days is a lot bigger than it used to be. Anybody who has tried getting around Bangkok ("only" 9 million people), Miami (5.6 million) or Rome (less than three million) knows all too well that even small cities can be pretty big and tough to cross.

Big Problems, Big Solutions
In a world of seven billion people and counting, big cities aren't an option that we can take or leave; they're inevitable. They're unstoppable. For the billions of rural poor eking out a meager living in up-country areas of Africa, Asia and South America, towns and cities hold out the hope of a better life with decent jobs, education and the prospect of striking it rich. In practice, the move often involves swapping grinding rural poverty for crowded urban squalor, at least for a generation or two. Globally, one billion people now live in urban slums and shantytowns; conditions are typically overcrowded, polluted and unsafe, lacking basic services such as clean water, sanitation and electricity. In most countries, cities just don't have the planning expertise or resources to deal with the influx of rural hopefuls systematically; the migrants arrive and figure things out for themselves as best they can. What they achieve can be extraordinary examples of resilience, enterprise and creativity.

Mumbai's Dharavi slum is a case in point. It holds around 1 million people living and working on a piece of land smaller than Central Park in New York City. Yet despite the cramped, rickety conditions, the inhabitants manage to generate output valued at between $600 million and $1 billion a year. Part of that value is in recycling the waste of Mumbai into economically valuable products. Exact figures aren't available because the businesses, like everything else in urban slums, are mostly unregistered and informal.

Hundreds of thousands of poor people crammed together in squalid conditions sounds like a recipe for misery, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, it's easier to provide access to education, healthcare and work in towns and cities than in the country because of the advantages of scale and proximity.

On the other hand, the more densely packed cities become, the harder it is to move around by car, let alone find a place to park. But as much as we love cars for the freedom, comfort and convenience they provide, they take up a lot of space and use up a lot of resources, they cause well over a million deaths and between 20 million and 50 million nonfatal injuries a year, and NASA analysis has found that cars and other road vehicles are the greatest contributors to global warming of any economic sector.

City authorities and city dwellers can't ignore the gridlock problem, and they can't fake their way out of it either; they have to find solutions. That's why urban planners and pointy-heads such as the RAND Corp. have been checking out Bogotá's celebrated bus system. It's estimated that since the system's launch in 2000, travel times have decreased 32 percent in some corridors, traffic deaths are 89 percent lower and CO2 emissions are down by as much as 300,000 tons a year.

Megacities create megaproblems, but by offering buzz and many opportunities for minds to meet, they also spur people to figure out megasolutions.

This is the 11th in a series of 14 posts expanding on Salzman's forecasts for 2013 in her annual trends report, a program of global communications group Havas Worldwide. This year's book, What's Next? What to Expect in 2013, was published on 12/12/12 and is available at 120MBooks.com. Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and an internationally respected trendspotter.