This is an extraordinary time to be living in. For the first time in history, more people now live in urban areas than in rural settlements. But how can we respond to this incredible change and challenge? Do we appreciate the place of cities – their importance for economic growth, their significance in shaping culture, their impact on global population? And how does our engagement in mission reflect this massive change? Understanding cities is crucial as we begin to respond.
“What makes a city a city is proximity. It brings people – and therefore residences, workplaces, and cultural institutions – together. It creates street life and marketplaces, bringing about more person-to-person interactions and exchanges in a day than are possible anywhere else. This is what the Biblical writers meant when they talked about a ‘city’”.1
The growing importance of cities
World cities are becoming more economically and culturally powerful. The technology and communication revolution means that the culture and values of world cities are now being transmitted around the globe. In the future there will be more of a global, multicultural, urban order – with world cities setting the course of culture and life as a whole1.
Cities are crucially important for the human future and for world mission 2
Cities are where four major kinds of people are most to be found: the next generation of young people, the most unreached peoples who have migrated, the culture shapers, and the poorest of the poor.
In the next four decades, all of the world’s population growth is expected to take place in urban areas
Most of this expected growth will take place in developing countries, where the urban population is predicted to double. The current levels of urbanisation are unprecedented and so are the numbers and sizes of the world’s cities. In 1950 there were only two megacities (that is, cities with at least 10 million inhabitants), and five cities with populations ranging from 5 million to 10 million. Today there are 21 megacities, including 17 in the developing world. However, megacities actually account for less than 10 per cent of the world urban population - the majority of Africa’s and Europe’s urban population lives in small cities (with fewer than half a million inhabitants).
Cities are focal points of economic growth, innovation and paid employment
Cities are places where money, services and wealth are concentrated. Many businesses are found in urban areas. Foreign money flows into a country via its cities – whether that’s through trade or tourism. There are more job opportunities and a greater variety of jobs. In a city, communities are much more socially diverse. There are better basic services as well as other specialist services that aren't found in rural areas. Health and education are two other major factors; on average, urban residents have better access to education and health care as well as other utilities such as clean water, sanitation and transport.
The potential benefits - and challenges - of urbanisation
Urbanisation offers significant opportunities for poverty eradication and for the promotion of sustainable development; but adequate planning is necessary to reap the benefits of urbanisation and lessen its costs and negative side effects. The speed and scale of urbanisation in developing regions will challenge the ability of governments to plan and meet the needs of the growing number of urban dwellers. Practically all urban population growth will take place in poorer countries – and a large proportion of the future urban population will live in conditions of poverty.
We need to consider how we should respond
The Cape Town Commitment has this to say:2
"We discern the sovereign hand of God in the massive rise of urbanisation in our time, and we urge Church and mission leaders worldwide to respond to this fact by giving urgent strategic attention to urban mission. We must love our cities as God does, with holy discernment and Christlike compassion, and obey his command to "seek the welfare of the city" wherever that may be. We will seek to learn appropriate and flexible methods of mission that respond to urban realities."
1 Tim Keller, What is God’s Global Urban Mission? from The Lausanne Global Conversation.
2 The Cape Town Commitment - Part 2, Section IID, 4, found at http://www.lausanne.org/en/documents/ctcommitment.html
Much of the material from this article is sourced from Population Distribution, Urbanisation, Internal Migration and Development: An International Perspective, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division, page 1.