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Symposium 2015

Solution for How to Build Sustainable Cities for the Next Urban Billion?

The Challenge

By 2050 the number of people living in cities will reach 6 billion. Existing cities will not be able to accommodate an estimated 2 billion people who will migrate from the countryside to urban centers ...

By 2050 the number of people living in cities will reach 6 billion. Existing cities will not be able to accommodate an estimated 2 billion people who will migrate from the countryside to urban centers seeking employment, education, and a better living standard. How to build the next 500 sustainable cities created by this rampant urbanization is among the greatest challenges of this century and it also represent one of the greatest opportunity to address a multitude of issues related to the environment, economic development, social advancement, medical infrastructure, and education.

Global Urbanization: A University’s Response

The world now has more urban people (54%) than rural people. In 1950, less than two thirds of the world’s population lived in urban areas. A hundred years later, by 2050, the world will be more than two-thirds urban. Nearly 90% of the projected increase in urbanization will be in Asia and Africa. Most of today’s large cities are in the global South. Clearly, the challenges of urban development are no longer national ones but must be addressed with a global perspective.

Cities are no doubt drivers of economic growth, connectivity, and innovation, but they also can be sites of social polarization, pollution, epidemic outbreaks, traffic bottlenecks, housing and other infrastructural crises that have ramifications well beyond national boundaries. How do we ensure that today’s college students are equipped to develop smart solutions for tomorrow’s urbanization problems? How should a research university in the global North—in this case, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)—respond to the challenges of global urbanization?

On July 26, 1943, the Los Angeles Times reported that a pall of smoke and fumes descended on downtown Los Angeles, cutting visibility to three blocks. Many people actually suspected it was a Japanese chemical attack. Yellowish-brown smog lingering over the city, due to industrial pants, post-war population and traffic growth, has then become the image of Los Angeles. Over the past four to five decades, aggressive air-pollution control regulations, such as cleaner gasoline, have dramatically improved air quality in Los Angeles. In May 2014, UCLA’s Center for Clean Air held a workshop on clean air and policy in China and California, focusing on how good science can inform policy at the local, regional and global level to produce sustainable solutions for large cities. Between boycotting Beijing for its toxic air quality and sharing an environmental successful story, the latter is probably more welcome and effective in China.

Research remains a core element of any solution. The urban environmental concerns of Los Angeles—smog, water shortage, traffic congestion, increased heat and rising sea levels—are the same concerns that face cities around the world. In order to transform Los Angeles into a global model for large cities, UCLA launched the “Sustainable LA” Grand Challenge, to develop solutions for achieving 100% sustainability in energy, water, and biodiversity in the Los Angeles region by 2050. UCLA is among the first universities to channel the resources of an entire university toward a single goal of solving large-scale societal programs. Furthermore, the effort is multidisciplinary—the only way to develop effective solutions for complex problems such as sustainability—involving six dozen faculty and staff from 30 centers and two dozen departments. Among the research results that can be implemented into public policy are a smart electrical grid, carbon-free transportation infrastructure, solar energy, desalination technologies, water-saving policies and techniques, and green urban land-use methods.

Forward-looking teaching strategies enable students to travel to cities around the world, observe, learn, critique, and act. UCLA’s Global Studies program takes undergraduate students to New York, Paris, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, where they experience first-hand grounded impacts of globalization. Many students who major in International Development Studies (IDS) go on to assume leadership positions to tackle urban development problems. During a recent trip to Delhi, I met a UCLA alumna and IDS major, who after graduation had worked for nonprofit organizations in Tunisia, India and Bangladesh, including a large NGO that aims at providing quality education to children in India, many of whom live in urban slums. Graduate students also benefit from interdisciplinary approaches toward solving urban problems. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, “The Urban Turn: Collective Life in Megacities of the Pacific Rim” program at UCLA focuses on Tokyo, Shanghai and Mexico City, where graduate students develop new solutions to urban problems by bridging architecture, urban studies, design and the humanities.

Meaningful dialogues enhance any solution’s chance for success. Cities are where cultures and peoples from varied geographies and origins converge, where diversity pollinates new ideas and nurtures innovation. Yet, cities are also sites where differences clash and intolerance breeds conflicts. A strategy that universities are uniquely equipped to pursue is to bring scholars and students around the world together to address issues of diversity, migration, and immigration. For example, a transcontinental partnership among UCLA, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and the University of Free State compares diversity issues in the US, Netherlands, and South Africa. The recent establishment of the Center for the Study of International Migration, which fosters research and instruction on migration, immigration, citizenship and diaspora, could not be more timely in light of the migration crisis currently enveloping Europe. In China, more than 250 million rural-urban migrants are denied permanent status in large cities and have been circulating between their urban work places and rural homes for decades. My research has shown that rather than using institutional controls to regulate urban citizenship, the Chinese government should devote resources to make migrant workers feel confident about staying in cities permanently.

As a locus of global knowledge, human capital from around the world, dialogue and debate about societal questions, and cutting-edge collaborative research that is transferable into policy and actions, the university is the perfect place to develop solutions for urban problems in the global North and global South. Situated in and drawing from the living laboratory of Los Angeles, UCLA’s experiences suggest that universities in large cities worldwide can play a transformative role in working with government and business-leaders to tackle present urbanization issues and plan a better urban future.

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