This Christmas, let’s all lift a glass to mark the birth of Homo sapiens urbanus

MORE than half the world’s population now lives in cities. And with 1m people every week migrating to emerging cities, all developing regions, including Africa, are expected to have more people living in urban than rural areas by 2030. Across the planet, Homo sapiens will have become Homo sapiens urbanus.

In this, the largest migration in human history, some of the numbers are truly dizzying.

Take China, where in just 30 years of rapid urbanisation, 450 new cities have been built to house 300m rural migrants. In India, where the birth rate is higher than China, sustaining the country’s youthful effervescence will require building around 14 Delhis or 18 Bombays or 30 Bangalores. At a time when we, in the risk-averse West, seem to have given up on building new cities of any kind, it’s fascinating to see India experiment with planning urban agglomerations on a subcontinental scale, such as the 1,500km Delhi–Mumbai growth corridor.

Yet the discussion on the urban future is laced with anxiety. China’s development has, by some measures, helped lift almost 500m people out of poverty. But with emerging cities regularly indicted for building power stations, dams and highways – what western sustainability advocates condescendingly dismiss as “pouring concrete” – human activity is viewed as something to fear rather than cheer, and angst over population growth and environmental damage takes precedence over celebrating urban dynamism and the potential for human progress.

Unfortunately, as Africa usurps Asia as the most rapidly urbanising region in the world, the assumption seems to be that this marks the return of the City of the Dreadful Night, only this time simmering in a hellish sub-Saharan heat. Is Urbanisation in Africa Pathological? asks the UN. With that doom-mongering outlook to the fore, no wonder a reported 72 per cent of developing countries have adopted policies to stem the tide of migration to their cities.

But such fatalism over the urban future is misplaced. It is true that migrants live in extreme poverty, and conditions in the slums don’t seem to belong in the twenty first century. But this is the future in the making. Just as was evident over a century ago in the Bowery in New York or St Giles in London, migrants to emerging cities today are adventurers who brave discomfort to make something of themselves and improve their lives.

While the likes of Prince Charles romanticise slums for their community values and marvel at their capacity to recycle waste, the reality of both Dharavi in Mumbai and Kibera in Nairobi is that they are hives of activity for those that have aspirations for something better, they represent temporary habitats for those who seek western standards of living, consumer goods, decent hospitals and modern healthcare.

The real problem today is not development in the East, but the low horizons of urbanists in the West. When bemoaning the apartment blocks that replace Beijing’s traditional maze of hutongs, or calling for an end to freeway construction and retention of bicycle lanes, they are dealing less in objective problems than projecting their own sense of limits and diminished expectations.

The tragic consequence of this outlook is evident in the stagnation and sanitisation of our own cities. In London, to be radical now seems to mean to go guerrilla gardening, which involves much self-flattery about the transformative potential of surreptitiously planting flowers on roundabouts or leftover spaces. Meanwhile, the urban revolution – in Mayor Boris Johnson’s mind at least – has been reduced to encouraging a few more people to pant into work on bikes.

The great Victorian modernisers – enthused by the expansion of human activity through the wonders of trams, trains and the first cars – already viewed travel by bicycle as “tedious and dispiriting”. The twentieth century at least promised, though it failed to deliver, jet packs, flying cars, and mass space tourism. It seems fair to be aggrieved at today’s limited ambitions.

Sadly, even when an interesting proposal comes along, such as Norman Foster’s recent plan for a Thames Hub airport, many seem predisposed to knock it. Terry Farrell, one of London’s leading architects asked, “if we build a new multi-billion airport to meet today’s demands, what will we do after 20 years of growth – build another one?” Just in case you’re tempted to answer “yes”, he adds that “twenty-first-century planning must be based on making what we already have work”. So while commentators now often refer to the economic crisis as creating a “lost decade”, London’s architects go a step further and demand limits on development that would result in a lost century.

But why accept life in the slow lane? Rather than fearing unsustainable growth, we should take inspiration from the emerging cities of the East. It’s time the West embraced the transformational promise of ambitious urbanisation.

Alastair Donald is associate director of the Future Cities Project, and co-editor of The Lure of the City: From Slums to Suburbs (Pluto, 2011).