Improving the lives of women is woven into each of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, markers that all 193 member states aim to reach by 2030. Goal 5 is quite specific: nothing short of gender equality. Attaining this lofty goal means being able to put one’s hands on data that have been broken down, or disaggregated, to create a clear picture of how much progress has been made toward equality. When the data is aggregated, development experts are hobbled, and that means lost opportunities to focus on enhancing the lives of women.
A case in point: “The World’s Cities in 2018,” a data booklet that updates the UN’s first look at urbanization and its implications for sustainable development. The new report uses broad strokes to depict an image of urbanization. But, due to limited access to disaggregated gender data, it doesn’t reveal how or even whether the status of women dovetails with a trend that will have enormous implications for sustainability and economic development in the decades to come.
Not surprisingly, many cities are growing dramatically, sweeping in outlying areas and large influxes of new residents. Tokyo, Delhi and Shanghai top the list, with 25 million-plus residents each in 2018 and projected populations of 32 million to 39 million in 2030. São Paulo, Mexico City and Cairo are not far behind.
Smaller cities are gobbling up the countryside as well. “In 2018, 1.7 billion people — 23 percent of the world’s population — lived in a city with at least 1 million inhabitants,” the report says, referring to magnets like Addis Ababa, Mombasa and Nairobi. “In 2030, a projected 28 percent of people worldwide will be concentrated in cities with at least 1 million inhabitants.”
Is this good news for women?
The report, which focuses not so much on the state of cities in 2018 as on where people will be living in 2030, illustrates the problem of missing disaggregated data points. Without them, it’s hard to plan for issues that women face in a rapidly urbanizing world. Cities could grow to accommodate the travel patterns of someone who runs many errands, for example, rather than the daily slog of an office commute. Generally, it’s easier to allocate resources with — well, the right data.
According to the report, roughly half of the world’s population lives in an urban environment; by 2030, one out of every three people is expected to live in a city with at least half a million inhabitants. (At the same time, rural population numbers are expected to remain relatively static.)
Increased density is projected to occur mostly in less-developed regions, including the global South. Nine of the 10 cities projected to become megacities by 2030 — with populations greater than 10 million — are in developing countries. No new megacities are forecasted for the Americas, and the only city projected to reach that status in the West is London.
As other research reveals, growth is not the same as economic development. “In the industrial era, urbanization was accompanied by economic expansion,” Lisa Chamberlain, author of “Slackonomics: Generation X in the Age of Creative Destruction” and a communications consultant who specializes in urbanization and cities, told PassBlue. “That is not the case in this current era of rapid urbanization. Massive migration to cities, mostly in developing nations, is not creating similar economic growth and opportunity. It’s creating massive slums.”
Also worth noting: Population growth doesn’t correlate directly with an increase in gross domestic product (GDP), which measures economic output; or with an ability to support city dwellers. Put another way, it would be a mistake to view urbanization as a tool for sustainable development, increased economic opportunity or a direct lift in GDP.
The UN report is designed to provide data for those who will structure development plans and thus points out that many rapidly growing urban areas are particularly vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. The vulnerability of women or the impact of urbanization on progress toward gender equality is outside the report’s scope.
On top of that, notes David Thomas, a director of the Gender Equality Unit at UN-Habitat, which promotes better cities, gender-specific data is not available for the places that are projected to experience the most growth. Or, for that matter, for the other current and projected population centers the reports covers.
What is known: Areas of expected intense population growth tend to be in the worst countries for women, according to an index created by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
“It’s not a coincidence that some of the cities projected to experience the greatest growth overlap with areas where the lowest rankings [are] in terms of security to women,” said Jeni Klugman, an author of the index and a fellow in the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Put another way, urban areas that present the greatest opportunities for women can also lower their security.
As Lena Simet, a teaching fellow at the New School and coordinator and lead researcher of its Global Urban Futures project, said, “Economic resources are not a good determinant of gender equality.”
“Cities that improved a whole lot in terms of economic metrics did not necessarily improve in terms of gender equality,” she added.