68%. That’s the percent of people slated to live in cities by 2050, according to the UN. Right now, that figure stands at about 55%, so comparing these two points, a 13 percentage point increase does not seem like that big of a deal. After all, it will be changing over the course of 30 years, which equates to about an increase of 0.4% percentage points per year. 

But percentages are misleading. When we represent our data with numbers instead of percentages, the story becomes that much more dramatic. With some quick math, we find that 4,287,250,000 people are living in cities as of 2020; a figure that will reach 6,619,800,000 by 2050. That’s an astounding 2,332,550,000 additional people living in or moving to urban areas in the span of 30 years.

These are some worrying data points when you consider that the majority of the urban population growth will be centered in economies undergoing intense economic transition. Handling all that rapid urbanization will be a tremendous undertaking for countries such as India, Nigeria, and China, which combined, will see about ⅓ of new urban dwellers calling one of their cities home. These countries and others in similar positions stand to gain a lot if they can manage their urban growth sustainably. But it will be a challenge rife with extremely complicated problems.

Lagos, Nigeria, set to become one of the most populated cities in all of Africa.

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Rapid Urbanization ©architecturaldigest.com

Pollution will invariably be one of those problems. Pollution of all kinds (light, sound, air) affects the quality of living in urban areas and though it is not specific to rapidly urbanizing areas, those areas in specific can curb pollution as they develop by innovating solutions.

Mumbai is one of those cities at the forefront actively trying to find creative solutions. In February of 2020, they began testing traffic lights which would stay red if the noise level went above a certain threshold. This was installed to reduce noise pollution by discouraging motorists from honking their horns. It’s an interesting idea that has shown promise but more time and observation will be necessary in order to tell if it is an effective method of decreasing noise pollution.

Mumbai launches a campaign against noise pollution through decibel meters on traffic lights.

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Rapid Urbanization ©theprimetalks.com

The challenge of reducing air pollution, however, is not as easily resolved. While we wait for new technologies to be developed to combat carbon emissions, cities must play an active role in reducing them. Cities must create more green spaces to sequester carbon and filter the smog created by industries within the city. Madrid and New Delhi are some of those taking on the challenge by planning urban forest to reduce emissions. By allotting extensive areas to greenery, these cities can successfully curb emissions, cool down their cities, and increase the quality of living.

El bosque metropolitano is a plan of urban forest surrounding the city of Madrid.

Rapid Urbanization ©madridiaro.es

In addition to pollution, a notable increase in traffic awaits many future megacities. If improperly managed, they could end up like Beijing or Mumbai, with massive traffic problems that degrade the city’s living experience. To avoid ending up with extreme traffic problems, the development of cities must change. 

Cities must switch to a transit-oriented development plan, which places emphasis on public transportation and walkability. Doing so will allow cities to densify while reducing carbon emissions, which will allow cities to house more people while occupying less space.

An important principle of transit-oriented development is walkability, which can be accomplished through conscious design and sensible policies. By limiting the size of blocks, people are able to reach their destinations in a timely manner. And by making sure new developments are within 10 minutes walking distance of a transit station, people will be encouraged to use public transportation rather than their cars because of convenience. 

In an effort to reduce car usage, Paris has a car ban once a year.

Rapid Urbanization ©weburbanist.com

Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, promises to deliver with her 15-minute city plan. The premise of the plan is to phase out the use of cars and motor vehicles by designing a city that allows people to access schools, shops, parks, and transit stations in under a 15 minute walk. Developing cities can take a page out of Hidalgo’s book by funding the creation of a comprehensive public transportation, adding bicycle lanes, and passing policies that will allow for compact city blocks and neighborhoods. If done correctly, these strategies could massively boost the quality of living in these new urban cores by reducing traffic and stress; all while addressing the cause of the changing climate.

Of all the problems addressed in this article, the most distressing is the exacerbation of inequality and homelessness. With an influx of new urban residents, demand for units will inevitably rise, making housing affordable only for those with wealth. This will force the lower income residents to move out, or move into slums/informal housing units where there is little legal protection for residents.

This problem is not one that is easy to address. Even the more established cities are facing a devastating homelessness crisis. Los Angeles, a city of about 4 million, has a homeless population of about 60 thousand. Cities with a high cost of living have grappled with this problem of how to provide housing for low income individuals. Unlike with the other problems addressed, the solution here does not lie within design, but within policy and the government. 

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Rapid Urbanization ©nytimes.com

The government must develop social/public/affordable housing units that are federally owned. This allows the government to control the rent and keep it at a low price for qualified low income individuals. Public housing, when done right, can be a dignified place for residents to call home. By incorporating elegant designs that blend with the city environment, public housing can be the solution to the mires of cities with a shortage of housing for low income individuals.

In addition to public housing, governments must expand the rights of renters by regulating landlords to prevent predatory practices. Governments must determine their own policies and limits for how landlords can operate. Governments must also regulate developments and ensure that some percentages of new developments are affordable housing units so they don’t drive their low income residents into homelessness.

Rapid urbanization can be a stressor for many developing countries but, if managed sustainably, these countries will be rewarded in the long run with happy residents, smart urban cores, and beautiful cities. The problems accompanying rapid urbanization are difficult but can be resolved with sensibility, elegance, and innovation. By ensuring livability in countries undergoing rapid economic transition, they will be making high-return investments in the future of their country; which will be driven by their people.


Eric Pham is a high school senior in the US with a fascination for the built environment. He believes that with more sustainable designs, architects and planners can change the world and create more eco-friendly urban areas.