The notion of “human capital” has, since the days of Adam Smith, always been a richer description of the human nature of “economics” than that of a more utilitarian concept such as “human resources.” Human capital defines an active engagement with the world: “the acquisition of…talents,” in Smith’s famous formulation, which “not only make a part of [one’s] fortune,” but “likewise that of…society.” Human capital, in other words, “ventures” much more so than most other forms of capital. It continually explores, discovers, invents—in contemporary terms, innovates—and, in so doing, multiplies its worth many times over.
Top among the demographic issues a number of cities face are high percentages of old and/or young people theoretically placing an economic burden on a relatively small number of working-age citizens, calculated here as a dependency ratio of active workers in an economy providing for everyone above age 66 and below age 20.
Throughout the last few years one of the most prominent issues for governments, whether national or municipal, has been the so-called “demographic time bomb”: the aging population of the world as a whole and of individual countries in particular. Indeed, in the eurozone, much of the debate around sustainability of current retirement (and labor) policies has concerned the demographic realities of an aging Europe. In this context, some of our “vital statistics” are genuinely— and, often, surprisingly—illuminating.
One of the most widely disseminated visual clichés about emerging cities is their supposedly “teeming” quality. Mumbai’s density is 20,864 people per square kilometer, Seoul’s is 17,248, and Jakarta, Buenos Aires, and Beijing register a density well above 14,000. The city with the highest density among all our 30 cities, however, is Paris, at 21,549 people per square kilometer. Moreover, while the five emerging cities above are relatively dense, they are not representative of our emerging cities as a group. So, what do these figures mean?
Urban sprawl is leading to cities growing “outward rather than upward.” The problem with many cities, therefore, is often not high but, actually, low density—and the resultant urban sprawl it generates. This is not to say that a real expansion per se is bad or that it automatically leads to sprawl. Put another way, the classic definition of urban life is extreme density—the timeless images of crowded sidewalks and jammed streets— which is why sprawl is not an inherently urban phenomenon but, rather, as urban specialists continually point out, a suburban one.
By definition, it is a city of options, of multiple choices, and of multiple paths to follow, whether economic, social, environmental, or demographic. It is never static or passive. It is a city that responds to challenges and, most important of all, anticipates them before they become truly problematic.