This story appears in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In 1950 less than a third of the world’s people lived in cities. Today more than half do. By 2050 two-thirds of humanity is expected to reside in urban areas.
Many sprawling, densely populated areas are all about “un”: unplanned, unhealthy, unsustainable. I remember feeling the “un” when my husband and I were in New Delhi in November 2016: In the capital city of the second most populous nation on Earth, the pollution was so bad that schools had to close because it wasn’t safe for kids to be outdoors.
The growth of cities has produced some of the most complex issues of our time. It’s a phenomenon that creates disruption—but also great reason for hope.
At National Geographic we’re known for telling stories about vast and open places. Increasingly, however, we’re documenting the growth of the world’s cities to explore how this trend is changing us.
That’s why we’ve brought you stories from Detroit and from Lagos, Nigeria. And it’s why we’ve launched Urban Expeditions—a series of case studies on innovative cities—with a grant from United Technologies.
In this month’s issue writer Rob Kunzig and photographer Luca Locatelli take us to Dubai, a “sprawling efflorescence of concrete, glass, and steel that has sprung up over the past three decades on the scorched sands of Arabia.” Improbably it’s aiming to become a green city. Built for cars, it’s now developing more walkable districts and public transportation. It’s transitioning to solar power and finding ways to reduce per capita energy and water consumption—right down to equipping mosques with low-flow faucets to save water during the ritual ablutions before prayers.
When we see cities straining against natural limits in the way that Dubai does so dramatically, it’s tempting to ask: Should this city even be here? Kunzig posed that question to environmental advocate Tanzeed Alam. “That’s the wrong question,” Alam replied. “It’s more about accepting where we are today … How do we make cities better?”
See more coverage of cities and sustainable growth solutions here.