Half the global population now lives in a city.

How we deal with the world’s increasing urbanization will determine the future of the Earth’s resources and societies. The theme “Better City, Better Life” is the focus of the upcoming Shanghai World Expo 2010, scheduled to open May 1.

Around 70 million visitors are expected in the following six months, making it the largest World Expo ever. “Shanghai is ready,” the exposition’s spokesman Xu Wei said, adding “the whole city has been mobilized.” Around 250 countries and organizations are represented. The Expo is to provide a platform to exchange ideas on how to deal with urban problems such as traffic, environmental protection, energy, rubbish and wastewater. Sustainable urban development is becoming an urgent problem for the world’s most populous country.

Although China’s urban population share of 46 per cent is still under the global average of 55 per cent, every year 60 million Chinese head for the cities. The country already boasts over 170 cities of over 1 million, and seven with more than 10 million inhabitants. Shanghai’s 18 million puts it among the 10 largest cities on Earth.

Shanghai is hoping that the 2010 exposition can do for it what the 2008 Olympics did for Beijing. Premier Wen Jiabao has said he expects a “spectacular and unforgettable event,” which should contribute to the progress of civilization. Straddling the Huangpu river, the 5-square-kilometre site is braced for a daily influx of 400,000 visitors. Transport and security are giving the organizers “many headaches,” Xu said, although the port city is considered safe. “For Shanghai we don’t see any big terrorist threats, but with a big event, you have to be ready for all different kinds of threats,” Xu said.

The security arrangements should also ensure that the visitors feel “happy and comfortable,” Xu added, but “it is not an easy job.” The organizers say they are on track to conclude the eight-year preparations in time for the opening on April 30. However, judging by the track record of previous World Expos, as many as 10 per cent of pavilions may fail to open on the first day.

The exposition’s Chinese management has no direct authority over the participants in this respect, but it is hoping to keep the percentage of laggards “as low as possible,” Xu said. Conservative estimates have predicted 3 to 5 million overseas visitors will visit the exposition and Shanghai -- literally, the City Over the Sea -- is keen to show its best side. A few feathers were ruffled, however, by the campaign to stamp out the charming if eccentric local habit of stepping out in pyjamas, under the slogan, “Don’t go out in your nightclothes, be civilized for the Expo.” After this stirred a big controversy, authorities were quick to point out that there was never any question of an actual pyjama prohibition. “My personal view is, it is a personal right. You can make a choice what you wear when you go out,” Xu said. Such customs can only be changed gradually as living standards improve, he added. “You need to let people see everything” a city like Shanghai has to offer, Xu said, not just the polished side, otherwise “you will not give people a 100-per cent picture of the city.” “The Expo Shanghai is a good chance for China to show the world that China is an open-minded country.” Authorities claim to enjoy full public backing for the World Expo, although there has been some criticism of the staggering cost to the taxpayer, the clearing of old residential quarters in the city and forced resettlements.

Human rights lawyer Teng Biao expressed concern over the lack of transparency surrounding the public funding of the event. “I am worried that there is much corruption,” he said, although he said he was in favour of the exposition in principle.

On an economic level, China has learnt many valuable lessons from the rest of the world in the three decades since it started opening its borders and reforming. In that time, however, little has changed on the political level, he said. “I hope that the Expo will be a chance for China to improve its human rights situation, and learn from other political systems,” Teng said, “including such basic things as the separation of powers.”