Global Ethics Corner: The Sustainability of Cities

Sep 3, 2010

Half the world now lives in cities, and they are growing. Are megacities an opportunity or a threat?

This Global Ethics Corner is part of the Council's second annual SEPTEMBER SUSTAINABILITY MONTH, which kicks off a year of events and resources on sustainability. Generous funding of the Carnegie Council's 2010-2011 sustainability programming has been provided by Hewlett-Packard and by Booz & Company.

Half the world now lives in cities, and they are growing. Can this evolution of human infrastructure improve our social and ecological prospects?

Urban life can be more energy efficient than suburban or rural life, but it depends on long supply chains. After all, globalization and megacities go together.

Global boomtowns generate amazing innovations, but they can also accelerate inequality. Poorer residents may never leave for a taste of country air, let alone baguettes in Paris.

Emerging economies have built entirely new cities designed for sustainability. Established powers have the historical advantage of wealth yet must retrofit aging infrastructure to remain competitive.

Urban migration also implies a shift of political power. Cities are shaped by one another almost as much as by central governments. Jurisdictional friction is inevitable.

Will the rise of megacities in Asia and the Middle East guarantee cosmopolitan tolerance and rights?

Governed by economic might alone, mass urbanization could lead to the worst of times: slums cleared for high-rise development; private armies guarding gated elite compounds; concentrated mega-populations falling victim to natural disasters.

But governed with an eye to improving health, livability, and education, global cities suggest our best, most sustainable times are ahead.

What do you think? Are we headed for the best or worst of times? Are megacities an opportunity or a threat?

By Evan O'Neil and Julia Taylor Kennedy


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