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Find out how our new Human Cities initiative will make city life more energizing, inspiring and vibrant for people across the world.


More than half the world’s population now lives in cities, with forecasts putting this figure at more than 75 percent by the 2050s.

To cope with this mass migration, cities tend to choose standardized solutions. As a result, many urban areas are slowly losing their identity, creating grey, lifeless and anonymous spaces that we don’t connect with and don’t inspire us as humans to achieve our full potential.

As a key player in the communities we serve, we at AkzoNobel see it as our responsibility to help make city life more energizing, inspiring and vibrant – to create more “human” cities all over the world.

That’s why we have launched our Human Cities Manifesto, which outlines some of the issues we think cities across the world should be focusing on in order to create more human urban environments.

Emotional connection
It highlights a number of key areas where AkzoNobel is already active – including color, heritage, transport, sport, education and sustainability – and is underpinned by a belief that successful cities are those in which citizens emotionally connect to their surroundings.

The manifesto was launched at this year’s 14th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice, Italy, where we also announced a research partnership with Rem Koolhaas and leading architecture firm OMA to conduct global research into the link between color and economic development.

“Given that 60 percent of our products are in the Buildings and Infrastructure and Transportation end-user segments, AkzoNobel has an important influence on the process of urban transformation that’s currently taking place,” said AkzoNobel CEO Ton Büchner.

“As a responsible company, we want to go beyond the purely functional aspects – which is what most people think about – and help cities and their citizens to connect on an emotional level.

“We also believe that our new research partnership with OMA will make a significant contribution to creating more ‘human’ urban environments for the world’s citizens, so we’re delighted to be partnering with Rem Koolhaas and OMA on this study.”

More information about the Human Cities initiative is available on this dedicated page.

June 2014


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Find out how we brought one of the key elements of our Human Cities initiative to life on the streets of Venice.


One of the key pillars of our newly launched Human Cities initiative is that people who live in cities need space to express themselves and spread their wings.

Public spaces refresh the soul of a city, enhance their appeal and help citizens to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

So as part of the launch of Human Cities at the 2014 Venice Architectural Biennale, we brought dance, drama and football to a Venetian piazza.

The "flashmob" involved an intricate dance routine and a display of football skills on a portable Cruyff Court, with people from the watching crowd being invited to try out their own ball juggling talent.

You can find out what happened by watching this short movie.

For more about Human Cities, visit the dedicated page, where you can also find details of how to win a trip to Venice.


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WORDS David Lichtneker

They occupy just 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, but our cities house half of the world’s population and consume 75 percent of its resources. Now, a new breed of metropolis is thriving, one which is transforming the face of the planet. Welcome to the megacity. 


Our world is changing. For the first time in history, more people live in cities than in the country. Which inevitably means that our cities are growing. In 1950, only one place met the megacity criteria of a population in excess of ten million – New York. Now there are more than 20 megacities. By 2050, 70 percent of the global population will live in cities. By the end of the century, three-quarters of the planet will be urban.

This epic emptying of the countryside is happening everywhere, with Asia – home to two-thirds of the world’s inhabitants – at the forefront (in fact, almost all the world’s population growth over the next 30 years will take place in the cities of developing countries).

It’s a mass migration which is being prompted by the promise of wealth and a better life. Millions are looking to climb the ladder of opportunity, but most fail miserably. Where do those poor unfortunates usually end up? Having to endure a life of abject poverty in one of the 200,000 slums that people now call home.

The statistics are mind-boggling. Tokyo – the largest city on Earth – is home to a staggering 33 million people. There are more than 20 million in both Shanghai and Mexico City, while Lagos in Nigeria is set to overtake Egyptian capital Cairo (population 16 million) as Africa’s biggest city within the next five years.

For the record, Europe’s only megacity is London (13 million). And what of India? Delhi is said to be creaking at the seams, while Mumbai has roughly doubled in population in the last 25 years. Over the border in Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, Dhaka, where 85 percent of its 13 million people live in slum conditions.

In 2009, a World Bank report said that this rapidly escalating process of migration should be welcomed and encouraged as a way of lifting people out of poverty. But the sheer weight of numbers is putting huge pressure on land, resources and urban infrastructure.

It’s perhaps easier to grasp when put like this – around 7,500 people are estimated to be moving to the city every hour. Some are coping better than others. In Shanghai, for example, 100,000 new homes are being built on the edge of the city every month. Described as the fastest-growing city on the planet (and capital of the world by some), back in the 1980s, Shanghai used to house 121 buildings over eight stories high. Now there are more than 10,000.

By contrast, in Dhaka, half a million new people arrive every year, the majority of whom end up in the slums and are left to salvage scrap and waste in an effort to eke out an existence. Yet the pull of the city is only going to intensify. 

“The tide of ever-increasing congregations of people in an ever-sprawling urban region is unstoppable,” says renowned architect and planner Dr. Liu Thai-Ker, who is Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Center For Livable Cities Singapore. So what can be done to help cities cope?

“It is imperative that a new theory or urban structure be considered,” he continues. “To make such an area livable, the challenge is to find out how to recognize the need for a higher density environment, to minimize the encroachment of valuable agriculture, and to create an environment which is livable, green-and-clean, with ample amenities and flowing traffic. Once you recognize that, we need to rise above the vested political interests and legal boundaries of the towns and regions, and focus our energy on solving the challenges presented by megacities.”

Those challenges are hardly inconsiderable. In Mexico City, for example (the kidnap capital of the world), its population produces an Olympic swimming pool full of human excrement every minute. Space is so tight in Tokyo that soccer pitches are built on rooftops. London alone produces 20 million tons of waste a year, and only around 25 percent of it is recycled. Gridlock is causing traffic mayhem everywhere.

In Delhi – where around 20 percent of people are thought to live in slums – the infant mortality rate was reported to have doubled in the space of a year in 2009. Food, healthcare, power supply, crime. The modern megacity has to contend with a burgeoning list of demands and problems resulting from their ever booming populations.

There is, however, another way of viewing the rise and rise of the megacity. As an opportunity – or a mega-opportunity. Because these huge metropolises offer possibilities for everyone, especially if they can be made to work efficiently and effectively.

In Africa, for example, the 18 largest cities are expected to have a combined spending power of $1.3 trillion by 2030. But future cities can’t be built on old models that don’t work. They need new technologies and new ways of thinking. They need to be retrofitted to turn them into the sustainable urban centers of tomorrow.

“It’s clear that we all need to innovate and find smarter ways to improve our buildings,” says Nico Maaskant, AkzoNobel’s Director of Sustainable Construction. “People expect more from a building than it simply being a roof above their heads. We are spending more and more time indoors, so we want our buildings to be safe and healthy, even to the point that they clean the air for us. They should also make us feel good. All of this will require new functionality and new solutions, which could open numerous doors for companies such as AkzoNobel.”

But with the construction industry currently consuming around 40 percent of all energy and 40 percent of all raw materials, simply building more and more is totally unsustainable. “Currently there is a very strong focus on reducing energy use,” continues Maaskant.

“Improving energy efficiency and increasing energy generation is a huge challenge, but at the same time represents another opportunity. Legislation is increasingly forcing us to build in a more energy-efficient way, so products such as the heat reflective paints and high visual spectrum reflective coatings that we supply are making it easier for contractors to meet these requirements.”

Look around any megacity and some form of construction is likely to be going on somewhere. The pace of change and sheer rate of growth simply demands it. So it begs the question, what will happen if they continue to grow at the alarming rate we’re currently experiencing? It’s taken just 50 years for us to witness the birth, growth and dominance of the megacity.

What happens during the next 50 might not only reshape the way we live, but could also have a major influence on the well-being of the entire planet. 

September 2011


The 30-kilometer train journey from Pudong airport to Shanghai takes just over six minutes. For those passengers who have never travelled on a Maglev (magnetic levitation) train before, there is always a tangible thrill of excitement, not just at its sheer speed (over 400km/hr), but also at the prospect of arriving in one of China’s most dynamic cities.

Shanghai is China’s largest municipality, with an estimated population of 23 million people. To house them all, the metropolis boasts 2,000 buildings of more than 30 stories in height. The tallest is the Shanghai World Financial Center, which is almost half a kilometer high. In short, everything about Shanghai is on a gigantic scale, making it a truly global megacity.

As befits the nation’s leading center of commerce, business folk in Shanghai exude confidence. This is entirely justifiable, as the city already has a GDP larger than that of many European countries. For example, according to The Economist newspaper, in 2010 the GDP of Shanghai and Finland were roughly on a par ($250m and $239m respectively). Yet the pure size of the economy does not seem to satisfy the city government, as they want to see Shanghai become a global shipping and financial center too. Like Hong Kong, Shanghai is also a place where you can buy almost anything, with locals and tourists alike regularly giving their credit cards a good bashing in one of the city’s gigantic shopping centers.

A city whose residents exude confidence acts as a powerful magnet to outsiders, which is one reason why more than half of all foreigners in China reside in Shanghai. But it’s not just those with passports who are attracted to the city. An estimated four million migrant workers who hail from the four corners of the People’s Republic also reside there. Without these temporary workers, the place would probably grind to a halt, since they take on jobs that the locals don’t want to do, such as construction work, domestic service and garbage collection.

Such is the star attraction of Shanghai that during the last ten years it has been growing at a rate of more than 630,000 people a year. Put another way, this equates to a net inflow of around 1,700 new residents (about 35 busloads of people) every day. Such a figure might seem impossibly high, until you take a trip to Shanghai’s main railway terminus, with its enormous station concourse covered with seething hoards of new arrivals. Most of these new “recruits” arrive with nothing more than the clothes they stand up in, a few hundred RMB in their wallet and a bedroll. They might also nervously clutch a mobile phone, containing the number of some relative already working in a Shanghai factory or building site.

So much for the hype, but what is it really like to live in a city which has a population of 23 million people? Well, for a start it is incredibly crowded, which means that trying to board public transport during the rush hour can be a life-or-death struggle. As a comparison, the most densely populated city in the United States is New York, with a maximum population density of 27,000 people per square kilometer (sq/km) in Manhattan. Yet parts of Shanghai (such as Huangpu District) have a population density of double this, with upwards of 50,000 people per sq/km, which puts huge pressure on everything from public transport to office rents and living space. Life is also incredibly fast-paced in Shanghai and the office politics can be brutal, with the result that every year, thousands leave simply because they cannot cope with the stress of working here.

In addition, like many other megacities, Shanghai is badly polluted. Local officials privately admit that although exhaust emissions per vehicle are likely to halve during the next decade, the number of cars in Shanghai is projected to more than double, so air pollution is likely to get even worse, not better. Finally, Shanghai is not a cheap place to live, partly because of massive pent-up demand for housing, and partly because of property speculation (“stir-frying houses” in the local lingo), both of which drive up rental costs and make buying an apartment a dream for all except the rich.

Despite these teething troubles, Shanghai’s population continues to grow. Although there is crowding, pollution and a feeling that everyone is always in a desperate hurry, it’s also a place with lots of charm and much to see and do. Just being here you can feel the verve and drive of this metropolis, regardless of whether you are strolling around the old European quarter, or concluding a business deal in one of the city’s numerous skyscrapers.

Tony Brooks




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