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The Urban Millennium: moving forwards or backwards?

This article is written by a master student and reflects their individual perspectives and opinions. It does not constitute an official representation of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute. The content provided here is for educational and informational purposes only, and readers should be aware that it does not necessarily align with the official position of the institute. Readers are encouraged to independently verify information and seek guidance from appropriate academic authorities when necessary. The authors bear full responsibility for the content presented in this blog and any potential consequences resulting from it.

This article was written by Emīlija Branda. Emīlija is a lawyer and a human rights activist from Latvia. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Latvia and is currently a student in the master’s program International Human Rights Law at Lund University.

The Urban Millennium: moving forwards or backwards?

On October 31 the world marks World Cities Day – a day devoted to promoting sustainable urbanization around the globe and addressing challenges posed by urbanization.

Urbanization refers to a population shift from a predominantly rural population to an urban one. This shift, which began in the 19th and 20th centuries, what historians sometimes call as the rural exodus, is a global phenomenon. 2008 marked the start of the urban millennium when the world’s population surpassed the rural population, and this trend is expected to rapidly continue. It has been projected that by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in urban areas. Therefore, the concept of the urban millennium is a critical turning point in human history marked by rapid urbanization.

Urbanization is often seen as a symbol of progress, associated with economic growth, innovation and access to services. For instance, historians agree that the rural exodus has been the key force behind the development and the urbanization of European economies. While urbanization has undoubtedly driven economic growth and innovation, it has also exacerbated inequality and raised serious human rights concerns.

Inequality, encompassing socio-economic gaps and disparities in access to essential resources and opportunities, tend to be pronounced within urban areas. Furthermore, two overarching global challenges, access to adequate housing and climate resilience, underscore the pervasive impact of urbanization. Urbanization influences not merely isolated individuals or specific groups who bear the negative impact. Instead, it casts a far-reaching shadow that touches not only them but each inhabitant of our planet. This is evident in the context of climate change and lack of climate resilience where the consequences are felt globally. Thus, it raises a compelling question: Is the advent of the urban millennium a step forwards or a potential regression for our world?

Housing is an essential part of quality of life. Access to housing is a right established in numerous human rights documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant for Social and Economic Rights. However, rapid urbanization has led to housing shortages, informal settlements and inadequate infrastructure which disproportionately affects marginalized communities. Lack of access to housing promotes poverty reflected by the large number of slums and informal settlements, hence, promoting the exclusion of a large part of the world population from sustainable urbanization. It is estimated that one in eight people in the world live in slums or experience slum-like conditions. Slums are characterized by the lack of water sources, lack of sanitation facilities, lack of sufficient living area, lack of housing durability and secure tenure. Consequently, these substandard living conditions set off a chain reaction, wherein they not only impact the quality of life but also have a negative effect on health, safety, and various other aspects of human well-being.

Additionally, an emerging trend associated with urbanization is the concerning issue of housing overcrowding. Household overcrowding occurs when the number of occupants surpasses the capacity of the available dwelling space. It’s worth noting that this challenge is not limited to a single region, but rather extends its reach across the globe. Some countries most severely affected by housing overcrowding include Colombia, Latvia, Mexico, and Poland.

Furthermore, lack of urban planning poses significant threats to urban areas and human life, for instance, in cases of natural disasters, resource shortage and food security perpetrated by climate change and environmental degradation. By integrating sustainability and climate resilience into urban planning and development such problems could be addressed. Climate resilience emphasizes strategically densifying, investing in renewable energy and sustainable building techniques, valuing existing ecosystem services and increasing the usage of sustainable transportation.

These problems underscore the pressing need for comprehensive urban planning and housing policies to address the evolving demands and challenges of the urban millennium.

In conclusion, the challenges presented by the urban millennium necessitate urgent action. The absence of such planning not only threatens urban areas as such but also human lives, particularly in the face of lack of housing, security and climate change-induced disasters. Integrating sustainability into urban development offers a path to a sustainable urban millennium capable of moving forwards.


Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. The rural exodus and the rise of Europe. March, 2019.

UN-Habitat. SDG Indicator 11.1.1 Training Module: Adequate Housing and Slum Upgrading. United Nations Human Settlement Programme, 2018.

United Nations. Sustainable cities and human settlements.

OECD. Housing Overcrowding.

UN-Environment. Issue brief SDG11.

Photo by Jordan Opel on Unsplash

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