Cover image: Cities: our urban world

Cities: our urban world

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), 2008 marked a tipping point - for the first time in human history more than half of us were living in towns and cities rather than in rural areas. Over the next 20 years or so, the global urban population is expected to rise to approximately 5 billion, and many of these will be living in the world's poorer countries. In this feature we touch on a range of issues relating to cities and urban life. We hope to inspire you and your students to explore further into our urban world. As a starter, why not explore different phrases used to describe cities? There's "concrete jungle", "urban sprawl", parks as "green lungs" or the busy-ness of a city described as a "hive of activity" or an "ants' nest". Encourage children to come up with their own or simply give them these phrases and ask them to guess what they think the new topic is going to be. Spark student interest in cities through visuals and information:

Where do cities fit into the curriculum?

Art & Design: architecture, 'urban' art Citizenship: communities Design & Technology: sustainability, transport, architecture Geography: urbanisation, migration, sustainability, transport, economic activity History: industrialisation, urbanisation, colonisation Science: sustainability

Issues covered in this article

Megacities Growing upwards Sustainable cities? Urban beauty, art and architecture Teaching resources


A 'megacity' is a city with a population in excess of 10 million. But how do you measure the world’s biggest cities? It is a very difficult task; you could look at population, density or land area. Top 10 lists vary quite considerably, but generally most of the megacities are found in the developing world.

Growing upwards

Tall buildings have an interesting history and role in the modern city; this could be investigated when thinking about how cities have changed and how countries demonstrate their power and development. The first skyscrapers were built in Chicago after a fire in 1871 burnt most of the city to the ground. As a consequence, the city attracted many radical architects. Their solution to Chicago’s geography (being surrounded by water on three sides and a railway on the fourth) was to build upwards. (Chicago Architecture Foundation) The economic argument for skyscrapers is that land in cities is expensive; erecting tall buildings gets the most value from the land. But it could also be argued that cities and countries build skyscrapers as status symbols. So there is potential for a classroom debate here, around whether these symbols are a good use of money in countries where many still live in poverty.

Sustainable cities?

Cities are more sustainable than perhaps they are generally given credit for. A report by David Dodman in Environment and Urbanisation found that the carbon footprint of urban dwellers is relatively light. Londoners emit about half the national average of greenhouse gases, and residents of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are responsible for only one-third of the national emissions average.

  • Greenpeace UK has developed EfficienCity, a virtual town that demonstrates how cities can be more sustainable.
  • You can find examples and case studies of what’s been done to increase sustainability in various cities (mostly in Scandinavia) on the European Sustainable Cities platform.
  • This YouTube clip from Minute Earth asks what's best for sustainability, 'sprawl' or 'grow tall'? How to Build a Better City

- Urban farming

Urban agriculture – saves you money, builds communities and it’s good for the environment... read more on this BBC News report, Sowing the seeds of urban farming. According to the UNDP (1996) 800 million people are involved in urban agriculture world-wide. Uncommon Good, a community based non-profit organisation that works with immigrant farmer families in California started the Urban Farmers Association. Its goal is to develop opportunities for its members to support themselves and their families through urban agriculture.

- Parks

Parks, as we generally think of them – areas of protected land in towns and cities, were first created in the UK in the 19th century. During the Industrial Revolution towns and cities grew significantly, as did the Victorian interest in philanthropy. It was felt people needed access to ‘natural’ spaces for their leisure time and to improve their health. As a result by 1900 almost every town in the UK had at least one park. (Source: A history of greenspace and parks by David Thorpe.) Are parks still a good use of land in cities with populations growing and not enough housing? Does looking after them waste money which could be spent elsewhere? What about how much water they use especially in drier parts of the world? Students could discuss these questions and design a park for the future, taking into consideration the needs of various communities and the environmental impact (good and bad).

Urban beauty, art and architecture

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="280"]Ambani house July 2010 by Jay Hariani - click to view on Ambani house July 2010 by Jay Hariani - click to view on[/caption] What can you learn about a city by rearranging it? French artist Armelle Caron has created 'city anagrams' by deconstructing city maps and grouping the blocks together. This could be a fun exercise for students and also help them visualise how much of a city is residential, transport links,

  • The Tate Modern's 2007 exhibition Global Cities had an accompanying Teachers' Pack (PDF) which provides some good images, facts and questions – with a focus on design and architecture.
  • The world’s most expensive private home (shown here, and worth US$2 billion) is in Mumbai - a city where around half of the 18 million residents live in slums. (There's also a BBC News article showing views inside.) This could be used as a way to challenge stereotypes or to think about the differences that exist within countries as well as between them.
  • Foreign Policy Magazine has a slideshow featuring great images of what they call 'the world’s top global' cities: Metropolis Now
  • Can science fiction cities help provide a view of the future? Why not get students to design best and worst case scenarios for future cities?Which future scenario might be better: The Jetsons? Or Blade Runner?
  • A beautiful video clip shows Abu Dhabi in 2011 using time lapse photography. Useful for demonstrating the beauty of cities, their use of power, the achievement of building a city in the desert... or perhaps an introduction to the uglier side of construction. The exploitation of migrant workers from India and Pakistan working in construction in the UAE has been explored by Human Rights Watch as well as The Guardian.

- Street art and graffiti

Ancient examples of graffiti can be found around the world, the oldest on Roman and Greek ruins. Graffiti has been used as a way to mark territory; as a form of protest, remembrance and inspiration. It divides opinion – some people view it as art and others vandalism. Whatever your thoughts on graffiti are, it seems like it is a by-product of urbanisation that is here to stay and it could be a good way to get students thinking about various aspects of cities and city life.

Further teaching resources/ideas

Useful dates on the global calendar

These would be good days for exploring the topic of cities:

Teaching resources



  • Dream City - free visioning activity from Schools Linking
  • Global eye - Focus on Global Cities - free online resource, Spring 2004 edition

All ages

  • Use the free Worldmapper website to help students visualize where the biggest cities and slums are in the world
  • The RGS free 21st Century Challenges website has a set of interesting talks and focus pieces: Adapting to an urban future

  The photo of Nairobi, Kenya, at the top of the page is by Ninara on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons licence.