As More Move To Cities, A New Take On Urban Design

With 7 billion people expected to live in urban centers by 2050, the stakes are enormous for building them right. There are many things to think about — traffic, trash, water, connectivity and more. Whether you're a new mega city being built in Saudi Arabia or old Liverpool trying to rejuvenate yourself, you face a lot of the same issues. Hundreds of mayors, private sector actors, think tanks and citizens groups convened in Paris this week to share ideas.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. By the year 2050, some 7 billion people will be living in cities. That will have a profound impact on our planet and force the world's urban centers to adapt. This week, big thinkers from the public and private sectors representing 60 countries met in Paris to discuss the city of the future. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Think about it: As many people who live on the planet today will be city dwellers just 38 years from now. That's bound to have a massive impact on economies, governments, societies and individuals in both the developed and developing world. For three days this week, public, private and civil society urban players gathered in this great city to see what they could learn from each other. John Rossant with the host organization, the New Cities Foundation, says the stakes couldn't be higher.

JOHN ROSSANT: Two years ago, for the first time in human history, over 50 percent of the population of the world now lives in cities, and that trend is accelerating. Every month, 1 million people in the world move to a city. If we don't get cities right, we're kind of - don't have a very bright future as humankind.

BEARDSLEY: Participants here say there is a list of finite problems every city faces - traffic, garbage, water - only the pecking order varies. Indian businessman Ravichandar is cofounder of City Connect, a platform that brings together the private, public and nonprofit sectors to fix cities. Ravichandar says the world's cities can learn from each other, but solutions must be adapted to local culture. But local cultures are evolving, he says. Take America's suburban car culture.

RAVICHANDAR: There's this whole kids who have grown up in a digital world, which has multitasking and texting, everything that they do. So typically, when they come of age, unlike their parents who the car symbolized everything in life, I think these kids are going to ask why am I wasting my time driving the car when I could be doing so many other things?

BEARDSLEY: Ravichandar believes that new generation will force America to develop better public and shared transport. Cities are also talking about ways to adapt, change and reinvent themselves. The mayor of Vancouver is striving to be the greenest city. Tel Aviv wants to be the Middle East's Silicon Valley. The lord mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, just wants his city, once the second port in the British Empire, to be relevant again.

JOE ANDERSON: A hundred years ago, we were still a huge city, and we've dwindled and declined over the years. And now, we're trying to reinvigorate the city, trying to put it back on the global map again.

BEARDSLEY: There are the freshly built megacities which are hoping to avoid the pitfalls. China plans dozens of them. And Saudi Arabia is building four new privately funded cities. One of them is called King Abdullah Economic City. Currently, it is home to fewer than 300 families. But the plans call for it to have a population of 2 million by the year 2025.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)

BEARDSLEY: Saudi investor Fahd Hamidaddin and urban planner Yousef Hamidaddin disagree over the viability of a privately built city.

FAHD HAMIDADDIN: So I'm basically telling him that that's not going to work, and he's saying it's going to work. Not only that...

YOUSEF HAMIDADDIN: Wait, wait, private-owned...

HAMIDADDIN: I didn't interrupt you. I didn't interrupt you.

HAMIDADDIN: ...doesn't always work as well...

BEARDSLEY: This is just one of many conversations about getting cities right for the future. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

SIEGEL: From a corner coffee shop to a park down the street, many of us have places that for us represent the heart of our city. And even if your town's tourism office has never heard of your favorite spot, we'd like to know what and where it is for an upcoming series. Go to npr.org/nprcities to contribute.

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