The Urban Transformation
Half of the world’s 7 billion people currently live in cities, one billion of them in informal settlements; the United Nations projects that the global urban population will expand to as many as 5 billion over the next two decades. Most of this growth will occur in unplanned and underserved city slums of the developing world. Surging populations are overwhelming urban ecosystems and the capacity of local governments to provide necessary infrastructure and services. Access to resources differs widely among city residents and highly visible disparities exacerbate social tensions, violence, and exclusion. Improving the quality of life for residents of urban environments is vital to local sustainability and global security.
The Comparative Urban Studies Project
For nearly two decades, the Comparative Urban Studies Project (CUSP) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has used a multidisciplinary and comparative framework to explore the growing significance of these urban issues. Committed to improving knowledge about sustainable urban development through research, seminars, and publications, CUSP has brought together broad networks of urban scholars, practitioners, community leaders, and policymakers to better understand the challenges and opportunities brought by urbanization.
Cities are too often viewed as magnets for poverty, pollution, disease, and political unrest. There is insufficient recognition that urban areas play an increasingly important political, social, and economic role in the world, attracting investment, ideas, and people in a process amplified by globalization. CUSP has worked to bring attention to comprehensive urban policies that can harness the energy of urban growth and diversity to create sustainable, equitable, and peaceful cities. Building on its work in this area, CUSP will examine the latest research and activity from the field to better understand the conditions that foster empowerment, resilience, and sustainability in the urban environment.
Empowerment Through Good Governance
The demographic transformation now underway is marked by massive urbanization, urban de-densification, and increased human mobility (migration). However, policies targeting urban growth often fail to take these factors into account. Efforts to stem rural to urban migration have not limited slum growth, nor have those efforts succeeded in ameliorating entrenched poverty and disempowerment. National governments and the international community must prepare for the future demands of expanding urban populations, their economic needs, and the social challenges of increasingly multicultural cities.
A focal point of CUSP’s past and current research is the role of good governance in eradicating urban poverty, empowering the individual and his or her community, and mitigating social conflict by “creating connections between civil society and the government, and ultimately fostering the articulation of a common vision for the city.” Innovative, community-led solutions to urban health, water, sanitation, crime, youth, migration, planning, land markets, and housing are needed to create resilient communities able to withstand the pressures of growth. The examination of locally-driven projects that involve a wide range of stakeholders in decision making processes has yielded substantial insight into effective policies aimed at deepening citizenship and democracy. As communities continue to evolve, so must the understanding of what constitutes good governance and how best to ensure transparent, equitable, accountable, and responsive action by local, regional, and state governments. CUSP programming has provided a neutral forum for dialogue, debate, and discussion to bring academic insight to the policy world.
Fostering Resilience Through Inclusion
Cities are necessarily diverse and dynamic, and there is growing realization that economic and political stability rests upon urban inclusion, providing all urban residents with access to services, rights, and opportunities for upward mobility. According to recent UN research, there are currently 191 million international migrants in the world, drawn increasingly to urban areas by the promise of opportunity. Differences in race, language, ethnicity, and religion compound the problems of urban poverty and marginalization. Yet people living in the worst urban conditions are self-organizing, determined to have a voice in planning for their future. CUSP seeks to examine and highlight models of urban resilience that successfully build upon local knowledge, networks, and the ability to adapt. Supporting community resilience in an increasingly globalized world will require viable urban governance structures and strong democratic civic culture that can create a common sense of belonging.
Sustainable Living in Urban Environments
CUSP recognizes that the sustainability of a city is dependent on its ecological well-being. Rapid urbanization in an era punctuated by climate change and environmental insecurity contributes to a quickly degenerating social and environmental state if left untended. The interactions between human and ecological systems are concentrated in an urban environment and the linkages between migration, health, environment, and poverty are nowhere more apparent than in the informal settlements and slums. The World Health Organization attributes 28 percent of the global disease burden to environment-related risk factors; access to basic sanitation, health care, public services, clean drinking water, food, and modern energy are necessary to stem environment-related infectious and parasitic diseases. The disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on urban populations strongly suggests that further research and efficient implementation of innovative policies are needed to curb current trends.
CUSP has remained at the forefront of understanding the significance of unprecedented and inevitable urban growth, and the corresponding need for effective policy. Empowering individuals, supporting community resilience, and fostering environmental sustainability are necessary steps to prepare for a global urban future. We are enthusiastic about continuing to facilitate research, dialogue, and policy innovations that provide the intellectual tools to work toward these goals.