Dirk Messner – « The Century of Cities »

Dirk Messner

« The Century of Cities – Pathways Towards Sustainability »

Markus Bücker, Alina Krause, Linda Hogan

Concilium 2019-1. Entwicklung findet Stadt
Concilium 2019-1. The City and global Development
Concilium 2019-1. Ciudad y desarrollo global
Concilium 2019-1. Città e sviluppo globale

Concilium 2019-1. Ville et développement global
Concilium 2019-1. Cidade e desenvolvimento global

1. Introduction

Humanity is on the move. This manifests itself in demographic growth within cities, as a result of the influx of people from the countryside to the city and from small and medium-sized towns to the metropolises; of migration both between poor countries and between poor and rich countries; and of social advancement from shantytowns to middle-class neighbourhoods. This relocation of humanity could become a process of social change that has most powerful impacts in the 21st century. 

Urbanization has a formative effect on the world economy and society, on people’s quality of life, on the future of democracy, as well as on the global consumption of resources and energy – and thus on the future of the Earth as a whole. Cities offer many opportunities for cultural, social and economic development, and for improving resource and energy efficiency. But urbanization must be actively managed in order to counter the following risks: in developing countries and emerging economies, one third of the urban population do not have access to adequate housing; in sub-Saharan Africa, this figure is even higher at almost two thirds. In 2012 more than 850 million people were living in slums (UN DESA, 2015) without adequate access to vital infrastructures. How can the number of slum dwellers be prevented from doubling or even tripling? In sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of all new city-dwellers currently move into informal settlements or slums, and half of them are expected to remain there in the long term. According to UN forecasts, Africa’s population could rise to a total of 4.4 billion people by 2100 (UN DESA, 2015). If the current urbanization trends were to continue in Africa, and, for example, 80  % of the people in Africa were to live in cities by 2100 – and 60  % of these in slums – this would mean about 2 billion people having to live in degrading city districts. Such a development must be prevented for reasons of social responsibility, but also from the perspective of security policy, since the massive social exclusion of people always carries with it the potential of societal destabilization. 

A fundamental change of perspective is needed here, one that does not fight the symptoms but focuses on what causes the emergence of informal settlements with inadequate housing. In addition, what can be done to ensure that quality of life increases in cities, and people can make the most of their potential? What are the characteristics of cities worth living in? Cities and urban societies are responsible for the overwhelming majority of all worldwide resource consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. How can the global urbanization surge be harnessed to ensure that efforts to improve quality of life are decoupled from environmental pollution – and that natural life-support systems are safeguarded? To achieve this, existing guiding concepts and strategies must be adapted (or new ones invented), developed and implemented. In view of the expected massive extension of the urban infrastructure, the challenge from the outset lies in avoiding path dependencies. If the new districts and cities were built according to the resource- and emissions-intensive models used in the last two centuries, global society would find itself in conflict with the planetary guard rails in the course of the 21st century. In other words, the spread of conventional urbanization on a global scale must be stopped. 

2. Urbanization and the Great Transformation towards Sustainability

The WBGU has already examined the topic of urbanization in the context of the ‘Great Transformation’ towards sustainability, which it analysed in its 2011 flagship report (WBGU, 2011). Now the WBGU applies the Great Transformation towards sustainability to urban areas (WBGU, 2016). WBGU’s intention is to clarify where challenges and opportunities lie and to point out the areas where fundamental modifications and system changes are required. 

Cities and their populations are drivers of global environmental change, while at the same time being affected by it. In this context, mitigation of climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the transformation: unabated climate change would jeopardize humankind’s life-support systems. The extensive analyses conducted by the IPCC reveal the specific impact on cities. Many urban areas are situated in low-lying coastal zones, where there are particularly serious hazards – e.g. as a result of a combination of sea-level rise, the subsidence of land masses caused by the weight of buildings and groundwater depletion, storm events and flooding. Other risks are associated with the urban heat island effect, droughts and water scarcity. In order to achieve the target agreed at the UN climate conference in Paris in 2015 of holding the increase of global average temperature to well below 2  °C above pre-industrial levels, fossil COemissions should be completely stopped by 2070 – or correspondingly earlier if the more ambitious limitation of the increase to 1.5  °C is to be achieved. Consequently, the energy system in every city must also be decarbonized by that date. For this to happen, the dominance of the system of fossil-energy use must soon be overcome. Furthermore, both the mobility sector and systems for heating and cooling buildings will also have to get by without fossil CO2 emissions in the future. There are encouraging signs that the international community is moving closer to this decisive turnaround. The public discourse on anthropogenic climate change has shifted significantly in just a few years and is now broadly anchored in society. The 2015 Paris Agreement is exemplary for the worldwide consensus on the need to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. Cities are the biggest consumers of energy and will thus play a key role in the implementation of the agreement. 

The progress of the Great Transformation will depend substantially on the decisions that will be taken in cities over the next few years and decades. There is a need for a paradigm shift away from incremental approaches that are essentially driven by short-term requirements, towards transformative changes with a strategic, long-term view of humanity’s natural life-support systems and the creation of a form of urbanity that sustainably promotes human quality of life. In this context, it is not so important to look to the future from today’s perspective, which usually makes the path already being followed look inevitable; rather, one should look back to the present from a desirable future: what paths should be followed and what dead-ends should be avoided today to make this sustainable future possible? 

With this change of perspective, the WBGU places people, their quality of life, their capabilities and options for action, as well as their long-term future prospects, at the centre of its reflections on cities. There is a certain tradition in the idea that development concepts and strategies should be geared to people and their quality of life – and not only to growth prospects. Almost three decades ago, the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF, 1987) and the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UN CEPAL, 1996) were already calling for an economic “adjustment with a human face” in their criticism of the one-sidedly neoliberal structural-adjustment programmes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Securing a minimum of supplies and services (e.g. access to adequate housing, food, health, education) for all should be seen as a target system of development. This orientation can also be found in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000. In the last few years, it has become clear that even when these minimum standards are met, significant sections of the population often do not participate at all, or not enough, in the process of economic and societal development. Poverty reduction does not guarantee that all people are equal before the law and will not suffer discrimination. So the aim must also be to reduce the considerable social and economic inequalities and to prevent the social, political and cultural marginalization and exclusion of – in some cases sizeable – sections of the population in urban societies. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) internationally agreed in 2015 lay down a framework for this, particularly SDG no. 10: “Reduce inequality within and among countries” and SDG no. 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

Against this background, the WBGU, with its people-oriented view of urbanization, advocates a comprehensive concept of quality of life and prosperity which goes beyond minimum targets of substantive inclusion: e.g. overcoming absolute poverty and ensuring appropriate housing. It also contains comprehensive political and economic inclusion, i. e. the belief that the urban population should be enabled to take an active part in urban development. The WBGU’s concept also aims to take into account essential preconditions for human quality of life, such as self-efficacy, identity, solidarity, a sense of belonging, trust and social networks. On the one hand, reversing the trends of growing inequality in people’s living conditions and development opportunities, and realizing the transition from exclusion to inclusion are prerequisites and goals for human development; on the other hand, this is the only way in which risks for the stability of urban societies, nation states and ultimately also the global community of states can be contained. The current implosions and explosions of a rising number of societies in countries of north and sub-Saharan Africa, which are characterized by high levels of exclusion, are a warning signal to the international community that should not be overlooked.The WBGU has developed a ‘normative compass’ to help shaping the massive changes in the ‘century of cities’ in a people-oriented way. This compass comprises three dimensions: 

  • First, sustaining natural life-support systems by complying with planetary guard rails and protecting the local environment. 
  • Second, ensuring substantive, political and economic inclusion for the city dwellers.
  • Third, the WBGU draws attention to the socio-cultural and spatial diversity of cities and urban societies, as well as the resulting plurality of urban transformation pathways: every city must seek ‘its own way’ to a sustainable future. This Eigenart (a German word meaning ‘character’) is not only hugely important for creating urban quality of life and identity, it is also an indispensable resource in the sense of developing each city’s specific potential for creativity and innovation. With the dimension of Eigenart, the WBGU is introducing a new category into the sustainability discussion. 

The WBGU advocates paying greater attention to polycentric approaches to urban development. The concentration of the population in one or a few central locations and urban agglomerations, which can be observed in many regions of the world, coupled with simultaneous economic, social, political and cultural marginalization and discrimination against rural and small-town areas, leads to (mega-)cities ’sucking in’ more and more people, resources and capital at the expense of their surrounding areas. The influence of cities, which will expand on a global scale by the middle of the century, now extends from the direct hinterland to remote regions. Brenner et al. (2013) have described this reach of the urban demand for resources as ‘planetary urbanization’. 

Not infrequently, deserted, unattractive rural regions are left behind, while rapidly growing (mega-)cities emerge – especially in developing countries and emerging economies – with overtaxed infrastructures, overburdened municipal administrations, hostile-to-life settlement structures and socio-economically polarized urban societies. Thailand is an example. More than 80  % of Thailand’s urban population live in the capital Bangkok (World Bank, 2015:  114). The WBGU recommends a change of direction. Polycentric approaches could make cities more attractive, avoid the disadvantages of excessive urban concentration and densification, and, at the same time, mobilize the advantages of decentralized settlement patterns. The conventional dichotomy between migration into and away from cities, and between the concentration and dispersion of settlement structures, is overcome by an approach which, instead of clearly separating ‘city’ from ‘country’ and ‘centre’ from ‘periphery’, systematically focuses on networking between poles of settlement and on the spaces in-between which connect small and large cities and rural areas. 

Polycentric urban development is, for example, an EU policy framework and focuses on bridge-building between agglomeration and deconcentration, not on their polarization. By strengthening small and medium-sized towns and networking them with larger cities, it combines the advantages of agglomeration and decentralization. 

Such a hybrid settlement strategy that emphasizes polycentric approaches is relevant for a number of dimensions in urban development.

  • With polycentric spatial structures better use can be made of resources if water, food and energy no longer have to be transported over long distances into the few centres. Decentralized provision of renewable energies and digital networking can support the advantages of polycentric spatial structures.
  • Polycentric settlement structures and polycentric cities promote the formation of cultural identity. They combine a diversity of urban societies with manageable settlement patterns and neighbourhoods, can restrict trends towards segregation, and open up spaces for connectivity and innovation.
  • Polycentric urban structures increase the absorptive capacity and resilience of urban societies vis-à-vis shocks (such as climate-induced extreme events or waves of immigration).
  • Polycentric decision-making and polycentric governance structures in cities promote the participation opportunities of local civil society and collaborative governance.
  • Cities should furthermore be embedded in a polycentric responsibility architecture. Giving cities and their civil societies more creative freedom within their nation states to shape their development pathways (vertical embedding of the cities plus local scope for shaping and planning) and enabling them to network horizontally leads to the development of a governance and responsibility architecture that is tiered locally, nationally and globally. Here, responsibilities should be distributed among different, mutually (semi-)independent nodes over different levels of governance. This polycentric governance approach creates coordinating mechanisms and reflexivities that highlight the relative independence of cities (but also of nations), and a simultaneously high level of interdependence between them (Messner, 1997; Stichweh, 2004; Ostrom, 2010).

3. A Normative Compass for the Transformation Towards a Sustainable ‘World Cities Society’

The WBGU has developed a ‘normative compass’ to provide orientation for societal action in the light of the above requirements. It describes the constraints within which cities’ development pathways towards a people-oriented form of urbanization should be realized, and which, if breached, would put sustainable development at risk. 

The key message of the WBGU is that the transformation can be achieved by a combination of three dimensions: 

  • Sustain natural life-support systems: all cities should pursue development pathways that take account of the planetary guard rails relating to global environmental change and solve local environmental problems to ensure sustainable urban development and the protection of the natural life-support systems. This involves, for example, meeting the 2  °C climate-protection guard rail and combating health-damaging air pollution; further examples include ending land and soil degradation and stopping the loss of phosphorus, an essential resource for agriculture.
  • Ensure inclusion: universal minimum standards for substantive, political and economic inclusion should be met in all cities and by all cities. The aim here is to give all people access to human safety and development, enabling them to evolve and implement their individual and collective ways of living. In this sense, inclusion is simultaneously a means and an end. Substantive, political and economic inclusion mirrors many human rights that have already been internationally codified or discussed. Furthermore, such inclusion is based on the idea that people need corresponding opportunities to realize and implement these rights. Substantive inclusion lays the foundations: access e.g. to food, clean drinking water, sanitation, healthcare and education is the essential minimum standard for securing basic human needs. Economic inclusion entails, in particular, access to the labour and real-estate markets. When people are made the main focus, they must be granted electoral rights – as well as procedural rights of information and involvement – in order to achieve political inclusion and a right to judicial control. This ensures that any violation of these rights can be sanctioned.
  • Promote ‘Eigenart’: with the dimension of Eigenart (a German word meaning ‘character’), the WBGU is introducing a new category into the sustainability discussion. According to the WBGU’s normative concept, the first two dimensions – sustaining the natural life-support systems and ensuring inclusion – open up a framework for a wide variety of transformation pathways. Within this framework, every urban society can and must pursue its individual course towards a sustainable future. On the one hand, Eigenart comprises all that is typical of each particular city. This can be described on the basis of its socio-spatial and constructed environment, its socio-cultural characteristics and local urban practices (descriptive Eigenart). On the other hand, Eigenart is a target or orientation dimension of urban transformations: it emphasizes that socio-cultural diversity in and of cities, their urban form, and the autonomy of city residents are key components of people-oriented urban transformation in the creation of urban quality of life and identity (normative Eigenart). In this normative connotation of Eigenart, people are seen as actors who use their inclusion rights and thus design their cities in different and specific ways in order to realize quality of life. Eigenart thus enables and equips people to develop self-efficacy and to shape urban societies and urban spaces, in order to develop quality of life, trust, identity and a sense of belonging – and to design cities, infrastructures and spaces in a way that supports this. In the WBGU’s view, two essential principles must be guaranteed to enable people and urban societies to develop Eigenart – and thus quality of life and sustainability: (1) the recognition of creative autonomy, i.e. that the residents themselves should shape and appropriate urban spaces, and (2) the recognition of difference, i.e. the recognition of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (UNESCO, 1997) and the individual opportunity to appropriate cultural identities. The introduction of the concept of Eigenart draws attention to the spatial-social pre-requisites for the appropriation of space, and thus for the creation of urban quality of life, social cohesion and local identity. It also makes it possible to take account of the diversity of cities and their transformation pathways. The spotlight is thus directed at the many and varied forms, designs and cultural manifestations of urban areas. The focus is also on the specific potential for social and economic creativity and innovation which develops as a result of local interactions (connectivity) between stakeholders from different societal spheres. Furthermore, the WBGU regards diversity in and of cities as an important resource for the urban transformation towards sustainability. 

Cities should take their orientation from universal sustainability and inclusion goals, but keep their Eigenart. Universal inclusion rights, as described above, are a necessary prerequisite for people and urban societies to draft and manage their own development pathways – universal inclusion rights and the Eigenart of the cities are mutually dependent and generate interactions. 

Complying with planetary ecological guard rails and ensuring substantive, political and economic inclusion represent global minimum standards for the 21st century’s civilizatory project for humankind. As concepts, ’sustainable development’ and ‘inclusion’ each contain a dialectical principle. In the case of sustainable development, the principle is the need to find a balance between conservation on the one hand, and, on the other, the facilitation of development, which historically is associated with ‘growth’, i.e. with ‘having more and consuming more’. In the case of inclusion, it is the balance between the collective idea of ’sharing’ and that of individual ‘having’ that needs to be found. Against this background, Eigenart becomes both a normative orientation and a source of innovative strength for a humanity on the move. The German word Eigenart (which means ‘character’, or more literally ‘own way’ or ‘own type/kind’) is itself characterized by the dialectic of Eigen (‘own’, i.e. individual, new, different, distinctive) and Art (‘way’ or ‘type/kind’), as an expression of class, community, group, generalizability. 

Sustainable, future-oriented societal development and quality of life can only evolve if these dialectics and tensions are balanced out in situations of dynamic equilibrium. Concepts of society that aim to overcome this dialectical complexity and the seemingly paradoxical contradictions of societal development – as expressed in the terms ’sustainable development’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘Eigenart’ – by propagating narrow-minded imperatives for unlimited growth or the primacy of the ‘individual’ or ’society’/ ’community’ – are destined to fail. This applies to the radical capitalist concepts of the ’shareholder society’ and to Milton Friedman’s view that there are no societies, but only individuals; it also applies to community protagonists of right-wing, left-wing, and sometimes even religious provenance, where the rights of individuals are made subordinate to the ‘greater whole’. The urban transformation towards sustainability can only succeed if transformation pathways are developed which balance out the ambiguity, dialectic and tensions expressed in the terms ’sustainable development’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘Eigenart’. 

Based on the interaction between the dimensions of sustaining the natural life-support systems, inclusion and Eigenart, the WBGU provides a compass for dealing with fundamental upheavals in the century of urbanization. With its normative compass for sustainable urban development, the WBGU tries to take the global diversity of cities into account.


Brenner, N. (ed.) (2014) Implosions/Explosions. Towards a Study of Planetary Urbanization. (Berlin: Jovis Verlag)

Messner, D. (1997) The Network Society, (London: Frank Cass Publishers)

Ostrom, E. (2010) ‘Polycentric Systems for Coping with Collective Action and Global Environmental Change’, Global Environmental Change 20, 550–557.

Stichweh, R. (2004) ‚Der Zusammenhalt der Weltgesellschaft: Nicht-normative Integrationstheorien in der Soziologie‘ in Beckert, J., Eckert, J., Kohli, M. and Streeck, W. (eds.) Transnationale Solidarität. Chancen und Grenzen,  (Frankfurt/M., New York: Campus) 236-245.

UN CEPAL – United Nations Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (1996) Transformación Productiva con Equidad. La Tarea Prioritaria del Desarrollo de América Latina y el Caribe en los Años Noventa. (Santiago: CEPAL)

UN DESA – United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2014) World Urbanization Prospects. The 2014 Revision. Highlights. ST/ESA/SER.A/352. (New York: UN DESA)

UN DESA – United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015) World Urbanization Prospects. The 2014 Revision. Final Report. ST/ESA/SER.A/366. (New York: UN DESA)

UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (1997) Our Creative Diversity. Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development (Pérez de Cuéllar-Report) (Paris: UNESCO)

UN-Habitat – United Nations Human Settlements Programme (2011) Global Report on Human Settlements 2011: Cities and Climate Change (Nairobi: UN-Habitat) 

UNICEF – United Nations Children’s Fund (1987) Annual Report 1987 (New York: UNICEF)

WBGU – German Advisory Council on Global Change (2011) World in Transition – A Social Contract for Sustainability. Flagship Report (Berlin: WBGU) 

WBGU – German Advisory Council on Global Change (2016) Humanity on the Move. The Transformative Power of Cities,  (Berlin: WBGU) 

World Bank (2015) East Asia’s Changing Urban Landscape: Measuring a Decade of Spatial Growth (Washington, DC: World Bank)


Dirk Messner is Director of the Institute for Environment and Human Security of the United Nations University, EHS-UNU.  He is also is also the Co-Chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU).

Address: UN Campus, Platz der Vereinten Nationen 1, D-53113 Bonn, Germany.