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Urban appeal: Sustainable or not?

Wednesday 20 January 2010
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More and more people are moving to cities. But is the shift sustainable, and is it really doing our quality of life any good?


‘While the world’s urban population grew very rapidly, from 220 million to 2.8 billion over the 20th century, the next few decades will see an unprecedented scale of urban growth in the developing world.’ explains the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) report ‘Peering into the Dawn of an Urban Millennium’.

It estimates ‘The increase in the urban share of total population is inevitable, but it can also be positive,’ saying ‘no country in the industrial age has ever achieved significant economic growth without urbanisation. Cities concentrate poverty, but they also represent the best hope of escaping it.’

But how on earth is this to be achieved? All too often urbanisation has become a watchword for slums, barriadas, favelas, prostitution, drug smuggling or enforced child labour. Concentrations of millions of impoverished, cash short individuals breed disease, crime and contempt. Not so, says UNPR. ‘The potential benefits of urbanisation far outweigh the disadvantages: The challenge is in learning how to exploit its possibilities.’

According to UNPF, ‘Between 2000 and 2030, Asia’s urban population will increase from 1.36 billion to 2.64 billion, Africa’s from 294 million to 742 million, and that of Latin America and the Caribbean from 394 million to 609 million.’ This increase will mainly be driven by poor people.

Government for the masses

It appears that improved urban governance is the way to the future. This precept supposes that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with population movement towards urban centres. The problem rather lies in ill prepared planning and management, failing to predict and accurately assess needs for land, homes, jobs, healthcare and other myriad impacts.

“There are risks related to climate change and extreme weather effects that will affect urban populations,” explains Cecilia Tacoli, Senior Researcher, Human Settlements, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). But she’s far more interested in the ways we can embrace urbanisation.

“It’s not a problem, it’s a natural progression. If there’s a lack of jobs, people move to where the jobs are. If people are moving away from agriculture, it’s because they cannot make a living doing this. Management of urban centres is not a problem of people, urbanisation and economic growth go together.”

“Combining industry with new jobs in cities and better services leads to wealth. It’s true that this is presently unequally distributed,  but in rural areas one dry season can ruin your lands, a street vendor may not seem an appealing job to many of us but it is not affected in that same way.”

Another key thing to understand, says Tacoli, is that 60 per cent of urban population increases come from people living in cities already, 40 per cent from migrants. So the problem of growing urban populations exists even without external influx.

“It’s also about supply and demand. Where do people go for health services, urbanisation in this way is a very good thing, if we can show security to tenure, legal right to land, quality of life may seem low but these are reasons migrants can’t get a foothold. They are also crucial to the economies of countries and cities.”

It’s a fair point. Urban migrants will often do work few others are prepared to. Tacoli also says studies show there are lower unemployment rates among urban migrants than people already living in cities, and migrants have a more aspirational mindset. It’s the same as international migration.

Learning to manage

“We must learn how to run cities properly,” says Tacoli. “You cannot expect this trend to stop, you can use economic structures and spatial economy work to try and stem or persuade individuals into certain actions, but none of this stops movement.”

Some argue making farming more appealing in developing countries may help. But interestingly, even if governments put cash into so doing, and if it becomes more profitable, this doesn’t halt urbanisation.

“The evidence is rural development doesn’t do this,” explains Tacoli. “This is because people’s expectations rise, they look to more productive things than agriculture, they learn more productive methods. The shape of urban centres will be changing over the next twenty years, but it won’t be mega cities.”

“The rise of the mega city is not happening. People go to small and intermediate urban centres. To make agrarian living work, you need capital, concentration of land, access to other forms of income like small shops, tourism or working in a local town to backup the farm income with stable yearly revenues.”

It seems, according to Tacoli, urbanisation can’t really be stopped, and there’s no reason to do so if it’s planned and run effectively. This is a big if. Vested interests including big developers bulldozing shanty towns in favour of new real estate, and fundamental misunderstandings surrounding the roles and aspirations of urban migrants may continue to plague sustainable urban development. Above all, a will is needed to make capital from these trends, not push them under the carpet.

The bottom line

‘First, they can help to bring about necessary changes in policy outlook by influencing planners and policymakers in developing countries to accept urban growth as inevitable and to adopt more proactive and creative approaches.’ says UNPF, describing the role of international organisations in bettering the situation.

‘These approaches should build on, rather than discourage, the efforts of poor individuals and groups to gain more secure, healthy and gainful homes and livelihoods in urban centres.’

‘Second, they can help indicate a better way to reduce rates of urban growth, thereby giving policymakers more leeway to tackle urban problems. The major component of this growth in today’s developing countries, natural increase, can best be addressed through poverty reduction, promotion of women’s rights and better reproductive health services.’

‘Third, international organisations can help policymakers and the different segments of civil society make better decisions regarding the urban future by encouraging them to generate and use solid sociodemographic information.’

‘Decisions taken today in cities across the developing world will shape not only their own destinies but the social and environmental future of humankind. The approaching urban millennium could make poverty, inequality and environmental degradation more manageable, or it could make them exponentially worse.’ concludes the paper.

Once more, it remains up to global leaders to act in the face of change, rather than ignore or oppose its development.

What are your views?  Not sure? Read the resources below for more information. Add your comment below. We welcome your thoughts and proposals. Not a Planetary Citizen? Sign up now!


Demographic, Social and Economic Indicators
UNFPA: state of world population 2009 - Facing a changing world: women, population and climate
Woman Watch Fact Sheet: Gender Equality and Sustainable Urbanisation

IIED: International Institute for Environment & Development
IIED: Working Paper Series on Rural-Urban Interactions and Livelihood strategies: Urbanization and rural development in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
IIED: Human Settlements Working Paper Series Theme: Urban Change – 5. Africa’s urban transition and the role of regional collaboration
IIED: Environment and Urbanisation brief: Towards a real-world understanding of less ecologically damaging patterns of urban development

Supplied by: UNPFA, http://www.unfpa.org/swp/2007/english/chapter_1/urban_growth.html

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