Members' Research Service By / October 8, 2021

Cities in a globalised world: Exploring trends and the effect on urban resilience

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on cities has triggered a debate on how much urban centres will be shaped by this crisis. Large densely populated urban areas have seen high rates of infection and reduced economic activity, altering the way people move and work.

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Written by Andres Garcia Higuera, Sorina Silvia Ionescu, Nera Kuljanic, Henrique André Morgado Simões, Eric Pichon, Jaan Soone, Yann-Sven Rittelmeyer, Eckhard Werner Binder and Ionel Zamfir.

Cities are inevitably affected by shocks and disruptions, the coronavirus pandemic being a case in point. The extent of the impact however depends on cities’ preparedness and capacity to adapt. Forward thinking is needed to explore emerging or plausible developments so that they can be anticipated and their disruptive nature contained. Both short- and long-term challenges can be better overcome through the use of foresight analysis and resilience.

Taking the policy approach recommended by the European Commission’s 2020 Strategic Foresight Report and drawing on the ‘Global Trends to 2030: Challenges and Choices for Europe’ report from the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS), this EPRS paper looks at developments expected in cities as a result of current global trends, and reflects on the impacts, implications, opportunities and challenges for urban resilience.

The global trends identified relate to climate change, population growth, urbanisation, economic growth, increasing energy demand, higher connectivity, and a changing world order. They will have direct consequences for the future of cities and their inhabitants and may affect their resilience in key areas such as: urban governance, urban living, the urban economy and urban mobility. A reflection on the future of urban growth in the world completes the analysis.

Some of the main lessons that can be drawn from the study are summed up below:

  • Urban governance: cities need to be better able to act autonomously and better organised (through network cooperation, exchange of good practice, etc.) in order to tackle challenges such as climate change and migration. Growing urban populations, combined with digitalisation and populism, are shaping local democracy. Appropriate mechanisms and instruments to support the relationship between a city and its inhabitants have to be in place for the development of harmonious and inclusive cities.
  • Urban spaces and housing: climate change has consequences for cities – for instance in terms of social, demographic and technological developments – that require urban planners and decision-makers to react. Making the best use of new technologies and digitalisation, while keeping in mind the social dimension, will be crucial for the future of urban life. By doing so, the ongoing urbanisation can lead to more socially equal cities, offering an energy-efficient environment.
  • Urban economy and work: economies globally and at the level of cities are being affected by the digital and green transitions. This will bring opportunities for growth, innovation and diversification, potentially improving cities’ ability to withstand economic shocks, but will also open economies to new vulnerabilities, such as network failures and cyber-attacks. These transformations will also likely come with significant disruptions in terms of job losses in sectors with a larger environmental footprint and in sectors where automation can replace tasks previously done by people. New services will also have a disruptive impact on a number of incumbent service providers. Social cohesion and urban resilience will depend to a large extent on how these transitions are managed through national governments’ labour market policies, but can also be improved by cities themselves tackling inequality.
  • Urban mobility: trends affecting urban transportation (climate change, digitalisation, technological advances) lead to developments with varying effects. New transport options (electric vehicles, automated vehicles, shared mobility, etc.) can be positive for the resilience of cities by providing alternatives in cases of systemic disruptions but can also be disruptive to the existing systems. Similarly, digitalisation allows for better access to mobility services, thereby bolstering cohesion and inclusiveness, but also makes transport systems more susceptible to network failures and cyber-attacks.
  • Urban growth in the world: several issues and questions are raised by unabating urbanisation, with megacities continuing to expand, in particular in Africa and Asia. Despite a robust economic and financial outlook, megacities need to strengthen their sustainability in the face of multiple social and environmental challenges. Their scale exposes them to various crises, but they have shown remarkable resilience in recent times. Urban planners and decision-makers are also looking for alternatives by creating new cities from scratch, based on sustainability concepts.

Read the complete study on ‘Cities in a globalised world: Exploring trends and the effect on urban resilience‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.


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