The city landscape is very familiar to many people around the world. Since the establishment of the United Nations, the world’s urban population has grown significantly. Today, nearly 55% of the global population resides in urban environments. By 2050, the UN estimates that this figure will increase to 68%. With over two-thirds of the world’s population residing in cities by mid-century, the success of actions undertaken today to advance our global vision for a more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous global community will hinge on local action. In particular, today we celebrate World Cities Day to recognize the important role that cities play in any progress towards change.
Declared on 27 December 2013 by the United Nations General Assembly, World Cities Day focuses our attention to challenges and trends in global urbanization. Today is also the conclusion of UN-Habitat’s Urban October initiative, a month-long campaign on urban issues and sustainability. Although both internationally recognized events were recently established, urban growth challenges have become increasingly significant over the past half-century.
The first comprehensive UN report with a focus on trends in urban and rural population growth was released in 1969 by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The report assesses trends in population growth, including forecasts for urban growth. Not surprisingly, it found significant trends toward urbanization, which signalled the need for focussed action on urban issues. In 1978, the UN General Assembly established an agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development (UN-Habitat) mandated to address issues of urban growth. The current global agenda, Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, also highlights the significant role of cities and action on challenges faced by cities.
This urbanization trend is also seen in Canada, where 8 out of 10 Canadians live in a nationally defined urban area and the country’s 33 census metropolitan areas generate 70% of the national GDP. More specifically, the Greater Toronto Area has a population of over 6.5 million. The City of Toronto itself generates one-fifth of the national GDP. Toronto has seen exceptional population and economic growth over the past decade, with growth in Toronto outpacing the national population growth rate by 1.2 percentage points; the City’s population grew 6.2% since the 2011 census compared to the national growth rate of 5%. In the next 25 years, the population in the GTA is projected to increase by another 3.5 million.
Like other major cities around the world, growth is not without some challenges. The benefits of growth and prosperity have not been equally distributed across the City. As noted in a popular 2010 study, the "Three Cities within Toronto", the city has seen income inequality accompany the City’s rapid growth. Toronto City Council has adopted several strategies to address challenges of the growing city, including the Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy, TransformTO, and Toronto Green Standard. Toronto also faces challenges such as the need to replace aging infrastructure, while also planning and investing in infrastructure to support projected growth and a sustainable future. A balanced long-term plan for managing existing public infrastructure balanced and investing in future growth is needed. Moreover, local leadership in defining the city we want and intergovernmental partnership is necessary for the vision to become reality.
There is much uncertainty in the future of Toronto given the recent changes in its local governance. As the new term of council begins on 1 December this year, it will be up to Torontonians to hold their 25-member City Council and mayor accountable for ensuring healthy, equitable, sustainable growth in Toronto. As one of the most diverse cities worldwide, there is no doubt there will be diverse opinions on how to achieve our joint objectives. However, one thing is clear - there is a need for our city to be united around a common vision of the type of city we want to live in. How would you describe your city of the future?