Monday, 10 November 2014

What constitutes a ‘world city’?

Emma Devenport - Consultant

To mark the UN Habitat World Cities Day on 31st October, Temple staff held a lunchtime discussion around the topic of what makes a world city and the challenges world cities face. Before the session, when I imagined a world city, I’d thought of it as one that is diverse, connected and a major hub for financial and business activity such as London, New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo. However, I now question whether a world city should be largely defined based on trade and economic terms alone; or whether a stronger emphasis on social and environmental factors is needed? And if a large city (by population and GDP) is multi-cultural and diverse, does that make it a ‘world city'?

There are various indices of liveable cities with The Economist’s ‘liveability index’ being one of the most widely recognised. The liveability index ranks cities based on healthcare, safety, education, infrastructure and environment, factors that should also be accounted for when defining a world city. The Economist ranks eight of the ten most liveable cities to be in Australia, Canada and New Zealand, with the remaining two in Europe (Vienna and Helsinki). The index tends to rank higher for ‘mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density’. This may explain why densely populated cities such as London and New York, or cities within developing countries such as Delhi and Rio de Janeiro don’t necessarily get a mention. This alone suggests that those ‘world cities’ should focus on improving their liveability to bring better quality of life to their populations.

It is clear that cities within developing countries face bigger challenges, particularly where there are large disparities between rich and poor, compared to those in the developed world. On World Cities Day UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, identified the need for tackling common challenges that cities across the world face, including congestion, inadequate housing, lack of access to healthcare and other basic services and an increasing lack of space, through ‘strengthening resilience, ensuring basic services and designing safe public streets and spaces’. The World Health Organisation (WHO) expects global urban population to grow by approximately 1.84% per year between 2015 – 2020. As the world’s population is increasingly becoming city-dwelling, there is a clear need to start solving the real challenges that Ban Ki-moon identified and improve the liveability of cities particularly through innovation and technology.

The concept of ‘smart cities’ focuses on the need for the right technology and good city governance to improve everything from infrastructure to healthcare. Without continued innovation, technological improvements, and appropriate planning and design, cities will struggle to remain world cities. The challenge is to deliver this transition using technology and innovation to improve liveability and ensure increased resourced efficiency to improve quality of life in even the most densely populated cities.

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