The Rise of Cities in the 21st Century

By Véronique Herry-Saint-Onge, a member of the Leaders of Tomorrow community

The 21st century is seeing an incredible power shift and power dynamic with the rise of cities as socioeconomic and political actors on national and world stages. Around the world, municipal orders of government are typically the smallest order of government, often depending on another order of government for revenue or growth.

However, as more and more of us now live in cities, cities are facing increasing pressures and challenges that need to be addressed. According to the United Nations, more than 54 percent of the world's population now lives in urban centers, a number that is projected to grow to 67 percent by 2050. As urban centers grow, they also become important economic drivers. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that currently the top 100 cities in the world are responsible for 38 percent of total global gross domestic product (GDP), and that the top 600, where a fifth of the world's population resides, generate 60 percent of global GDP.

In countries like Canada, the numbers reflect this trend. More than 80 percent of the population lives in an urban center. And Canada's six biggest metropolitan regions (Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa) account for more than 50 percent of Canada's population and generate more than 50 percent of the nation's GDP. Anne Golden, the former chief executive officer of the Conference Board of Canada, argues that "cities punch above their weight when it comes to creating the country's GDP. The future success of our cities is pivotal to Canada's ability to compete in the global economy."

But Canadian cities, much like many other cities around the world, face more and more issues, such as public health, immigration, and infrastructure, that are seeping in from other jurisdictional spheres. Under the federalism structure, cities are finding it difficult to meet these challenges and demands. As Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist for Canada's Globe & Mail newspaper, noted, "what happens in the big cities counts hugely for the entire country's economic development, cultural accomplishments, social integration of immigrants, innovation and overall well-being. If cities don't work, the country won't work. It's as simple as that."

With the upcoming federal election, a conversation has begun on how cities can be better equipped to deal with the challenges they face, and how to change the political status quo when it comes to municipal affairs. But there are no easy solutions. Cities need long-term sustainable funding for their infrastructure, transit and services, and Canada is bound by constitutional restraints. Within this system, it is up to cities to speak with one voice to develop common public policy objectives to meet their challenges, and to bring the other orders of governments to the table. Furthermore, long-term solutions require the participation of civil society. Cities should partner with chambers of commerce and other organizations to learn from one another and find solutions, and to ensure that long-term change is possible beyond election cycles.

Canada is not alone in facing this challenge. These conversations are happening around the world, including in the United Kingdom, where discussions are being held as to how to devolve more powers to London and other cities. Much like Canada, the UK's biggest cities account for 50 percent of the population and generate half of the country's GDP. The World Economic Forum points to the trend towards the decentralization of governance to regional and local bodies as one of the megatrends that is shaping the 21st century.

After all, the rise of the municipal order of government will be a defining factor of the 21st century. Cities no longer compete with other cities within the same borders; they compete with other cities around the world. And nation states are no longer the only players in international affairs; cities are increasingly present. This has led the McKinsey Global Institute to argue that "the 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by The City. In a world that increasingly appears ungovernable, cities -- not states -- are the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built." We know this is where we're headed, but the path that leads there is one with many challenges.

And as the world turns its attention to cities, one must wonder what the long-term impacts of this will be on rural and remote areas. Can these be proud and small while cities thrive? Or does one exist at the expense of the other? As more and more of us move to the cities to build our futures, it's an important question to ask as part of a larger national and international conversation on the future of cities. With some political will, civil society awareness and engagement and creativity, we can ensure that cities can be empowered so that they can thrive in the 21st century and beyond.

This post was written in the light of the topic "Proudly Small" debated at the 45th St. Gallen Symposium held on May 6-8, 2015. Herry-Saint-Onge is a public affairs consultant living in Toronto, Canada. In 2014, she was an Action Canada Fellow where she was part of a team that produced a report on how to empower Canadian cities in the 21st century. The report can be found here.