Reuters / Brendan McDermid

Can People Power Help Cities Fight Urban Challenges?

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As rapidly growing cities face increased pressure on their existing services and infrastructure, urban dwellers have an important role to play in helping local governments tackle the challenges, speakers at a cities conference said this week.

Citizens can help city authorities improve waste management, healthcare, urban planning and reduce violent crime, they said at the 2017 Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona.

Cities in both the developing and developed world need to build “participatory communities” in order to make improvements to urban living, said Hany Fam, executive vice president of Mastercard Enterprise Partnerships.

“Cities are growing at such a fast rate … There isn’t a single city in the world that is ready to cope with that level of growth in their populations,” he said.

The movement of people from rural areas to towns and cities is speeding up, said Joan Clos, executive director of the U.N. Human Settlements Programme.

“Urbanisation is a worldwide phenomenon,” he said, adding that cities in Asia and East Africa are growing particularly fast.

About two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to be living in cities by 2050, an increase from 54 percent today.

Japan, which faces a rapidly ageing population as well as growing urbanisation, is using citizen engagement to help tackle healthcare problems in urban areas, said Soichiro Takashima, the mayor of the Japanese city of Fukuoka.

Greater participation by residents can make cities more resilient to the challenges they face today, as well as help those who are left behind socially and economically, said Maya Wiley, a civil rights activist and professor of urban policy at the New York-based The New School.

“What people don’t often understand about a city like New York or about the United States is that a tremendously large section of our population cannot pay its bills every month, cannot meet their basic needs,” she said.

In addition, more than a quarter of New York’s residents do not have a fixed internet broadband connection, she said.

“Many residents don’t speak English, many are so poor that they can’t afford to eat at the end of every month – they cannot afford the very expensive bill of paying for broadband,” she explained.

If they had a free wireless service, they would be able to engage more with the authorities about improvements to public housing, safety, energy efficiency and other issues, she said.