Are Modern Cities Sustainable?

Photo by Grant252 | CC BY 2.0

Around 4 billion people, or more than 50 % of the world’s population, now live in cities. By 2050 that percentage is expected to rise to 75%, as the world population soars to 9.7 billion. Fifty of those cities will be mega cities, i.e. concentrations of people in excess of 10 million.[1] There are already 10 hypercities, each housing more than 20 million people, which was the size of the population of the entire world at the time of the French Revolution. How many of these mass conurbations there will be by that time is anyone’s guess, because the rate at which cities have grown over the last thirty years is simply unprecedented. This accelerated urbanisation of the world is a direct result of globalisation, both its intended and unintended consequences. And what the newly arrived urbanite can expect from that development will largely depend upon whether or not he has been invited to the party.

To get some idea of the remarkable speed of this urbanisation it is instructive to compare the growth rates of some of these new cities with that of the city of London in Victorian England. As Mike Davis points out in ‘Planet of Slums’, (reprinted in 2007, and so already woefully behind on current figures) from 1800 to 1910 the population of an increasingly industrialised London multiplied 7 fold. But compare that with Dhaka, Kinshasa and Lagos, which over a far shorter period, (1950 to 2000) have experienced population increases by a factor of 40. What is even more remarkable is that this influx of people occurred not against the backdrop of developing industries and expanding labour markets, but just the opposite. It happened at a time of “falling real wages, soaring prices and skyrocketing urban unemployment.”[2]

When we think of modern cities we probably imagine tall buildings and smart, glassy office blocks, fancy restaurants and designer shops, all brightly lit and fashioned out of concrete and chrome: shiny, new and expensive. But actually the burgeoning size of many of the new cities in the global south is due to an influx of indigent people as many forsake the countryside and move to the metropolis, giving these sprawling developments a look far more shanty town than shopping mall. Without power, infrastructure or even basic sanitation, and often precariously located, with precious little room to build, it is hard to imagine why anyone would choose to join the multitude of slum dwellers endeavouring to eke out an existence within the crevices of urban life.  And the numbers are set to increase. There are already over one billion people living this way. By 2050 that number is set to reach three billion, which means that one in every three, or maybe even two, people on the planet will be living in a slum. The specific reasons for these mass migrations vary but can be traced back to a single word: Globalisation. There has been a corporate takeover of the land: a new colonialism, forcing millions of people from the countryside. Enclosure, one of nascent capitalism’s earliest acts of vandalism has been exported, stealing land and destroying rural communities all over the globe; forcing the dispossessed to seek refuge on the grubby fringes of urban life. Failing crops, land clearance for industrial agriculture, quarrying, mining, deforestation, dam building and other forms of land grabbing by private corporations are the ugly progeny of globalisation now assaulting the rural poor. Of course there has been resistance, but in the face of ‘increasingly hardening police states’, another child of globalisation, resisters have been imprisoned, labelled ‘terrorists’ and even killed.[3]

It isn’t only in the cities of the global south that Davis’s worrying term ‘surplus people’ has gained traction. Urban centres in the north have also sought to rid themselves of an undesirable excess. For, unsurprisingly, the legacy of industrial capitalism in the north is the presence of a large working class citizenry situated right at the heart of city life. Or, at least it was, until aggressive gentrification took hold in the 1980s and began clearing out working class neighbourhoods for, what was deemed to be a more suitable, i.e., affluent, ‘creative elite’.  Richard Florida, the urban studies theorist, and creator of the ‘Bohemian Index’, (which supposedly measures urban creativity), who championed much of the early gentrification movement in London and San Francisco, makes no bones about focusing on the ‘regenerational skills’ of those he dubbed ‘the creative class’. Although he now regrets that the ousted ‘service class’ has had to ‘take it on the chin’.[4] Florida isn’t alone in drawing on some pseudo Darwinian logic to justify stealing from the poor. But his distinction between the entitled creative class and the disentitled service class strikes a disturbingly Huxleyan tone. Maybe he thinks the poor should wear khaki.

Clearly the working class are being deprived of what French philosopher, Henri Lefebvre insisted was the right to urban life, but they are not alone. In recent years it has become increasingly difficult for demonstrators to exercise their democratic right to protest within the precincts of the city.  A study of public space in the UK capital conducted by the Guardian newspaper showed that more than 50 of London’s formerly public areas have been sold off to private corporations. Paternoster square, right outside St Paul’s Cathedral, (now mischievously renamed Tahrir Square after Occupy London was evicted from the spot) and  Bishops Square in Spitalfields are just two spaces now owned and run by private concerns.[5] Many of these locations still look ostensibly public. It is doubtful that anyone out shopping, on their way to work, or engaged in any other ‘co-operative’ activity, to use the new urban-military parlance, would notice anything different. But try taking photographs, unfurling banners, gathering in numbers or acting in any way deemed to be ‘non co-operative’ and the private security guards will soon move in. It isn’t only the privatisation of land that has effectively cordoned off areas from protest. As Stephen Graham articulates in ‘Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism’, what we can expect, with ever increasing globalisation and urbanisation is the stealthy militarisation of urban centres all over the world: a development Graham refers to as ‘deeply technophiliac state surveillance projects,’ permeating every space and activity of city life. In many ways we are almost there; nobody can be so naïve as to believe that car registration recognition systems, extensive CCTV coverage (soon 642,000 cameras will be up in London alone), oyster cards that log you in to the travel networks and the extended deployment of specialist information gathering police teams are about anything other than mass surveillance, tracking and control. Certainly anti-capitalist protests in recent years have been met with mass incarceration, water cannon, tear gas and even rubber bullets, which would seem to confirm what Graham’s military informants have been telling him: the city is the new battle zone.

When Lefebvre insisted we have a right to the city, he wasn’t referring simply to the right of the individual to access the city’s resources. Lefebvre meant something far more fundamental than that because he recognised that the city influences who we are and how we behave; essentially it controls our future. And he saw that it is only when the people have the power to change the city that they have power over their own development, which is precisely why urban elites are deploying military technology to keep the people out. Within cities themselves, however, there is already an existential battle underway. A battle which concerns our very survival as a species. Because what is now being tested, every day, all over the planet, is whether such massive artificial constructions are actually sustainable at all. Eugene Odum, ‘the father of modern ecology’ dubbed cities ‘parasites on the countryside’ because they pose such a drain on natural resources. Simply maintaining the material infrastructure of an urban development, i.e., keeping the buildings up and running, is hugely expensive in ecological terms, let alone bringing in food and water for the inhabitants and taking out all the waste. Modern cities are essentially consumption centres, which have been designed and built to absorb surpluses of capital and to protect the centres of economic and political power. Dr William Rees, of the University of British Columbia, who created the ecological footprint analysis with Mathis Wackernagel, describes modern cities as “entropic black holes sweeping up the productivity of a vastly larger and increasingly global resource hinterland and spewing an equivalent quantity of waste back into it.” According to Rees, New York requires a supply base almost 1000 times the geographic size of the city itself. Tokyo requires an area twice the size of Japan to maintain it. A recent study showed that the 744 largest cities worldwide require more carbon dioxide sequestration than the entire world’s forests could provide.[6] Dr Rees is clear, “sustainable cities is an oxymoron”.

And Cape Town may be about to prove Dr Rees’s point, as Day Zero dawns and the city runs out of water for its 3.7 million inhabitants. It will be instructive to see how the burden of water depletion is actually shared by Capetonians, bearing in mind that a quarter of the population live in ‘informal’ settlements i.e., shacks, and already share communal taps. For a city that has a booming tourist trade, is surrounded by golf courses and has a fair proportion of luxury real estate – gated and with pools, (a substantial number of which are second homes), running out of water will certainly be an inconvenience, but it will be the poor and the diminishing middle class who bear the brunt. The rich are investing in private boreholes, if they haven’t already secured their own water supply, and a desalination plant is being built for a luxury hotel chain. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, South Africa remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, with Cape Town standing out as a particular jewel in the crown of wealthy elites both at home and abroad.[7] With a dramatic escalation in population: almost 80% in 20 years, and decades of diminishing rainfall, one might have imagined a major investment in water infrastructure was overdue, particularly bearing in mind that a million inhabitants of the city  live without basic sanitation. However, such flagrant water inequality didn’t prevent Cape Town from scooping up the international prize for “World Design Capital of the year” in 2014; so we can rest assured that running out of water is unlikely to adversely affect its rating on the ‘Bohemian Index’.

Susan Roberts is a lecturer in moral philosophy and animal rights.



[2] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, (London: Verso, 2007)

[3] Arundhati Roy, Capitalism a Ghost Story, (London: Verso, 2015)






Susan Roberts is a lecturer in moral philosophy and animal rights.