Cities can be fundamental enablers of human development

Julio Lumbreras argues that cities who are able to provide their citizens with non-material services, such as access to culture or public safety, as well as basic services such as clean water, sanitation, access to energy and meaningful jobs are fundamental enablers of human development

During May and June, the ISC will be featuring content by experts on Rearticulating Human Development. This is a joint project with the UNDP. ISC members and your networks are encouraged to participate. This interview was conducted by Asun Lera St Clair @AsunStClair

Julio Lumbreras is Director for North America at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and Visiting Scholar at Harvard Kennedy School.

What elements should the human development concept fundamentally include considering today’s challenges and in the context of your work on sustainable cities?

I think the original concept of human development as the process of enlarging people’s freedoms and opportunities and improving their well-being, and the three key dimensions of the Human Development Index (HDI) are still as great approach. What I believe we should do today is to look at this concept from the context in which a large majority of people live, cities. To me cites are a system of systems that provides services to people. In this sense, cities are an enabler of human development, a major driver for people to move from rural areas to cities is precisely because they think basic services are better in cities.  

I would like to make, however, a distinction between material and non-material services. Material services include housing, access to food, water, energy and mobility, waste management or green spaces. People move to cities to find these types of material services. But people also go to cities because of the social and other non-material services, for example education, jobs, culture and public safety. Education was included in the human development index but culture or public safety, which also are fundamental needs for people, were absent from the original idea. Another aspect of the services cities provide is that they are dependent on the environment, such as energy or water. Thus, to me it is important also to see the city as a key configuration part of a larger system.

Following on this idea of viewing cities as centres providing services fundamental for human development, are you indicating that it is important to add a relational dimension?

Yes, I believe that fundamental elements of human development are relational, for example people are driven to cites attracted by the offer of cultural and other social services such as theatres, cinemas and museums. Social and relational services are also very relevant, enabling diversity and promoting both interaction and understanding amongst different people and diverse cultures.  This intercultural relationships one finds in cities today has become central and many people’s own conception of quality of life.

Safety is also important, many people tend to go to cities thinking that they will be safer because they will have access to protection services, improving their lives and making them safer and even impacting their life expectancy. Unfortunately, in many cities this is no longer the case today, and often cites have become less safe than rural areas.

Building on the perspective that cities need to provide certain things in order to enable human development, what are the major emerging challenges?

Besides the risk of pandemics that we all have now learned is enormous, to me a major challenge is that many urban areas, mainly in developing countries, have people who do not have access to basic services. Too many people who move to urban centres attracted by their possibility to enhance their quality of life end up living without access to energy, water, sanitation or waste management. Unfortunately, the number of people lacking these basic services is not decreasing at the pace needed worldwide. Cities that grow without the provision of these services become very problematic.  

Another major challenge is the overall aging of the population in many parts of the world. Comparing population pyramids of today and the future, we see that about 35 % of the population will be 65 years or older as we approach the end of this century. The global average life expectancy will be around 80 years, and this means a large population of people over 80 and even over 90. Unless we change radically the length of working careers, we will have millions of people that do not work for over two decades. This will have very challenging consequences in terms of incomes, taxation, retirement pensions and costs of health and elderly care and cities should adapt services to this reality.

Another challenge is migration and people’s mobility within and across countries. One type of migration is from rural areas to urban areas, which puts pressure on the services in cities as I have outlined earlier. Another type of migration is between continents and countries due to different economic development, due to climate change and due to other pressures, such as a generalized lack of natural resources or lack of other services in some parts of the world. The global migration from rural to urban areas and across continents due to climate change will be really important in the future. We need to be prepared for these flows of people displaced by increased extreme events and other climate impacts for which many are not resilient. Considering many urban centres across the world today are already unable to provide for their inhabitants, these increased migration flows may truly jeopardize human development outcomes.

Another challenge is, in my view, existing rates of inequality. Clearly, we need a new social contract. Just a few decades ago the world, although still unequal, distributed wealth creation more equally.  For example when companies increased productivity then wages went up as well and people earned more money. But this is not the case nowadays. Today, productivity and wealth creation go only to the very rich. This increase in inequality worldwide is another challenge for the coming years.

This leads us to a related, global security and governance. How can people participate in democratic processes when inequality continues to erode the social fabric? People are willing to adopt more radical and less democratic systems. We have the case of many populist leaders, like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, and an increased global influence of a major authoritarian regime in China. These leaders move forward with their agendas ignoring people’s demands. So how can we promote democracy, people participation and citizen engagement and how can we develop systems where people can participate in a profound way? To me this is an important and central challenge for human development. In this sense, mayors are in general less populists and ideologists as they are focused on solving citizens problems, fixing potholes.

How can we make the concept of human development more strategic and link it more with sustainable development?

First, let me say that I think we should definitely think about how to incorporate more elements of the SDGs and their targets in the ways we measure human development. The main problem of the GDP-based concept is that this is a macro indicator which does not relate to the reality of the country – the GDP might be increasing because of a few rich people are making lot of money but the well-being of the majority of the people might be getting worse. We need to consider measuring with micro indicators on the level of communities and people. If you measure the variation of GDP per capita not only aggregating at a geographical area but also for each range of income percentile, then the results would be very different. The SDGs can also help disaggregating this into different aspects. The challenge is to translate the SDGs into people’s lives and how to relate them to their problems.

Regarding how to make human development more strategic, perhaps we could learn from the mission driven perspective that is now being put forward by the European Commission. We need to agree on a north star, a goal and purpose and generate excitement about it.  In a sense this is what SDG 17 was all about, a call to all stakeholders of global society to work together. The problem is that rather than working toward the mission of sustainable development, we create silos in terms of sectors, in a fragmented manner. For example, in the context of COVID-19, some cities are thinking how to create solutions and consult other cities emerging the coopetition, cooperative competition.

These networks of cities are important, but they are incomplete, as often do not include consultation to citizens or to other key social actors such as private companies or researchers. Thus, what we need is to create spaces for collaboration between governments, citizens, scientists and the private sector. This is, in my view, the only way we can really be influential with mission sustainable human development. The problem is that it is difficult to create these partnerships. First, we need trust, and it takes a lot of time to facilitate these processes. Creating spaces for collaboration has nothing to do with research or money invested in infrastructure, it is just about people facilitating process and building trust.

What is a meaningful and useful definition of human development?

To me a meaningful and useful definition must be human-centred and focused on people. This is why GDP is not a good metric because it is about money in a country and not about people. People, their material and non-material needs as well as the services addressing these needs should be at the centre of the definition, and let me add, should be at the centre of the current transformation we are experiencing.

The reconstruction that needs to happen after the COVID crisis needs to be human centric. The reconstruction will rebuild the economy, but this recovery should be focused on human development. We should develop new neighbourhoods that really offer the mentioned services and that really cover the needs of people. For example, we can build what is called “the city of 15 minutes.” This concept conveys an urban centre where main services are located within 15 minutes walking distance so that vulnerable people do not need to depend on transportation and can walk everywhere to access food, health care as well as social and cultural interaction and services in their proximity. So, when we think about the transformation that we need to create, let us focus on improving human development, on meeting the SDGs and on making a new social contract that truly puts people at the centre.


Julio Lumbreras is a chemical and environmental engineer. Julio received a PhD in Air Quality at the Technical University of Madrid (UPM) in 2003 and a Master in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), in 2017. He is currently Associate Professor at the School of Industrial Engineering (UPM), UPM’s Director for North America, and Visiting Scholar at HKS.


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Photo by Tony Hisgett on flickr

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