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Over the last twelve months, the RSA’s City Growth Commission has assessed how cities can be empowered to drive the UK’s economy. Chaired by renowned economist Jim O’Neill, who coined the acronym BRIC, the Commission underlined that our UK enquiry had to be seen in the global context.

Large scale infrastructure programmes, ranging from high rise office buildings to improved transport links are testament to the increasing importance of cities all over the world. Whilst London and New York remain the two biggest global players for now, cities such as Shanghai, Hong Kong and Dubai have joined the stage and are now followed by Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Nairobi and many more.

Over the last 50 years, the percentage of people living in cities has increased from 34% to 54% and is believed to rise up to 66% by 2050, according to a UN report published earlier this year. Taking population growth into account, this adds a staggering 2.5 billion people to our cities. On the positive side, a growing population results in a larger labour force and hopefully tax income, but the challenges are obvious; more people also require more housing and infrastructure. These topics have been widely discussed by the City Growth Commission in the UK’s context, but are just as important in the international context.

The challenges cities face are just as diverse as cities themselves. Whilst some cities are significantly affected by climate change, others are affected by crime, social unrest, a lack of healthcare institutions or appropriate housing and education.  People in Beijing might complain about bad air quality, whilst Londoners complain about overcrowded trains. Some cities might lament slow internet connection whilst other cities wish they had a reliable supply of electricity. Moreover, the next decades might bring problems we cannot even imagine yet; just as current problems are tackled, new ones emerge. Who would have thought 20-30 years that a slow internet connection could hamper economic growth?

However, cities do not just represent problems, they are also often the birthplace of solutions. Cities create wealth, ideas and innovation. Cities bring together people with the right skills and expertise, debates can flourish and identities are formed which in turn foster social cohesion. Thus, cities have the unique capability to address issues and withstand, or at least re-emerge, from challenges ranging from large scale devastations caused by the force of nature to security threats. Cities are not only home to problems, but they are also the beacon of hope to improve peoples’ lives.

The opportunity offered by cities has long been recognized by the UN which mandated UN Habitat (The United Nations Human Settlements Programme) to support policy makers and local communities in addressing issues in their urban communities. It will support the UN Millennium Development Goals and address issues, such as poor housing and access to safe drinking water, as 

UN Habitat is mandated by the UN General Assembly to promote socially and environmentally sustainable towns and cities with the goal of providing adequate shelter for all.

After the completion or the Commission’s work and the positive impact we had so far, it became clear to us that we could contribute to and learn from the international debate about the importance of cities. Our 27,000 strong and globally spread Fellowship helps us to learn from a wide range of people with diverse backgrounds, and we are already participating in international conferences to exchange ideas.

Today City Growth Commissioner Ben Lucas is attending the World Cities Day in Bogota, Colombia, organized by UN Habitat, to speak to global experts and RSA fellows addressing similar problems as the City Growth Commission. This is an excellent opportunity for the City Growth Commission to exchange ideas with senior figures from the Colombian Government, World Bank and others; what can they take from the experience of UK cities and how can we learn from them? This is just another great example of how cities serve as a platform to exchange ideas and Ben will tell you more about it in the coming days.

Thomas Hauschildt is the Project Management and Communications Officer of the City Growth Commission

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