Fixing Fragile Cities

Solutions for Urban Violence and Poverty

A police operation against drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro, May 2012. Ricardo Moraes / Courtesy Reuters

In the decades to come, the city, not the state, will decide stability and development. People around the world have been converging on cities for centuries, and more than half of them live in one today. Western cities have grown so dominant that commentators now speak of “the triumph” of cities and call on mayors to rule the world.

The direction of urban population growth is shifting dramatically, as Africans and Asians, not Americans or Europeans, flock to cities in unprecedented numbers. According to the latest UN estimates, more than 90 percent of all future population growth will occur in the cities and sprawling shantytowns of the developing world. Meanwhile, urban population growth in most developed economies will slow; in some places, it could even shift into reverse. 


The global turn to the city has been a successful experiment. Civic planners in the world’s largest metropolises have learned how to make urban spaces safer and more livable. Throughout much of the developed world, smart cities are building urban data networks to confront local challenges such as crime, timely delivery of services, and carbon emissions.

Not all cities are moving in the same direction, however. As large cities thrive—just 600 of them now account for two-thirds of global GDP—countless smaller and medium-sized cities fall behind. Widening this gap are so-called fragile cities: places where the social contract binding municipal governments to their citizens has crumbled and anarchy rules. 

With some exceptions, these centers of fragility are located in North, Central, and South America, which are home to a staggering 45 of the 50 most dangerous metropolises. In some ways, fast expanding cities such as Acapulco in Mexico, Caracas in Venezuela, Maceió in Brazil, and San Pedro Sula in Honduras are harbingers of what’s to come in the rest of the Southern hemisphere in the absence of decisive policy interventions.

Urban specialists have long puzzled over what causes some cities to spiral into perpetual crisis even as others prosper. Among the best insights

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