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"We’re not in the field anymore”: Adapting humanitarian efforts to an urban world

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Background Paper

  1. Introduction

Urbanisation is a social phenomenon and a physical transformation of landscapes that has been described as ‘one of the most powerful, irreversible, and visible anthropogenic forces on Earth’ (IHDP, 2005). It may well amount to the most significant change in human civilisation since the coming of agriculture. The total urban population, which stood at just 10 per cent of the global population at the start of the 20th century, has in the past few years reached an unprecedented 50 per cent (UN, 2005). This much-reported event has been described as an irreversible tipping point (Crane and Kinzig, 2005) - the threshold of a new ‘urban millennium’ (UNFPA, 2007). Much of the available data indicates that urbanisation will continue at a scale and speed that redefines our relationship with each other and with the planet. (IHDP, 2005).

• In 1900 there were 16 cities around the world with populations of 1 million or more people, a lmost entirely in developed countries. By 2000, there were 400 cities with populations of more than 1 million around the world, three quarters of which were in developing countries (UN, 2005).

• By 2030, the global population will stand at 9 billion, and the global urban population will account for up to 60 per cent of this figure (ibid). Almost all population growth in the next 30 years will take place in urban settings. To put this shift into perspective, there will be almost twice as many people living in cities 2030 as there were people living on the planet in 1970.

• Most of this urban growth will be in small and medium-sized cities rather than mega-cities, with about half of the world’s urban population residing in cities of 500,000 people or fewer. (UNHABITAT, 2009) These teeming cities will account for up to 90 per cent of all global economic activity (UN, 2005)

• In terms of sheer numbers, Asia will continue to house the largest number of people in its towns and cities. Africa, although the least urbanised continent today, will become home to 1.2 billion urban dwellers by 2050, with a significant youth majority (ibid).