Managing Urban Growth
Cover story, Centerpoint, November 2007
This year, for the first time in history, more than half of the world's people will live in cities. By the year 2030, the global urban population will double from 2.5 billion to 5 billion. This is not a phenomenon of rich countries. Most growth will occur in unplanned and underserved city slums in countries that are least able to cope with added demands. Failure to prepare for this unprecedented and inevitable urban explosion carries serious consequences for global security and environmental sustainability.
Over the past two years, the Wilson Center's Comparative Urban Studies Project (CUSP) organized a seminar series to bring these trends to the attention of international decision-makers. With the support of the Urban Programs Team of the U.S. Agency for International Development, CUSP commissioned research to examine the multidimensional problem of urban poverty, identifying innovative approaches to urban health, water, sanitation, transportation, crime, youth, migration, planning, land markets, and housing.
The Project culminated in a final conference on September 24 that convened leading urban scholars and practitioners to discuss urban assistance and ways to insert urban issues into the development agenda. In conjunction with the conference, CUSP joined with the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to organize a briefing on September 28 for congressional staff to discuss the challenges and opportunities of global urbanization.
Urbanization, Poverty, and Slums
"The face of poverty is no longer a rural woman sitting under a tree with children. The face of poverty is a ghetto with trash and a whole lot of people infected with HIV," challenged Susan Parnell, an urban geographer at the University of Cape Town, at the September 24 meeting. Urban poverty is now growing at a faster rate than rural poverty, she said, yet the donor community and national governments continue to neglect this reality.
One billion people—one-third of the world's urban population—currently live in slums. In cities across the globe, hundreds of millions exist in desperate poverty without access to adequate shelter, clean water, and basic sanitation. Employed in the informal sector and living in illegal settlements, the urban poor face the constant threat of eviction. Overcrowding and environmental degradation make the urban poor particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease, from cholera and tuberculosis to HIV/AIDS and SARS.
Urban issues, such as health and environmental conditions, cut across sector and region, reflecting the need for a comprehensive approach to urban policy. Therefore, many of CUSP's meetings were co-sponsored with other Wilson Center programs. On June 27, the Environmental Change and Security Program and CUSP co-hosted George Martine, lead author of the UN Population Fund's report, State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth. Martine said megacities receive a great deal of attention, but future growth will concentrate in small and medium-sized cities where capacity to manage this process is weak. Another misconception he exposed is that urban growth stems from rural migration. Most urban growth is a result of natural increase. Urbanization can help alleviate rural poverty through remittances and increased demand for agriculture products. Rather than trying to stop migration, which has never been possible, policymakers should focus on providing infrastructure and services for the urban poor.
In the absence of a proper regulatory environment and secure land tenure for the poor, powerful real estate development is shaping urban growth, said Ellen Brennan-Galvin of Yale University. Slum areas are treated as raw land ready for development and are cleared out for financial and business centers while the poor get relocated to city outskirts. A recent UN report stated that at least 2 million people in the world are forcibly evicted from their homes every year.
Illegal settlements are most often located on the periphery, where transportation is inadequate and costly. Wealthy urban residents separate themselves living within walled and gated communities guarded by private armies. Spatial polarization and highly visible inequalities have made cities breeding grounds for social tensions. In rapidly urbanizing cities of the developing world, exclusion and deprivation lie behind sharp increases in crime and violence. For wealthy and poor city residents alike, security has risen to the top of the political agenda.
"Slums are the manifestation of deprivation and alienation," said Mohamed Halfani, officer in-charge of the Urban Development Branch and chief of the Urban Governance Section of UN Habitat in Nairobi. He said slum dwellers have been denied civic engagement, unable to participate in the political process or to force accountability on those who represent them." Vulnerability and insecurity have weakened the links between citizens and their cities, yet it's increasingly apparent that urban inclusion is a condition upon which economic and political stability rests.
Cities play an enormous social, political, and economic role, attracting investment, wealth, and people in a process amplified by globalization. Urban centers are engines of national economic growth, generating up to 85 percent of GNP.
Cities are booming, yet economic policies targeting growth and job creation have not translated into better living conditions for the urban poor, noted Raquel Rolnik, former national secretary of Urban Programmes for the Ministry of Cities in Brazil. Rolnik detailed reform efforts in Brazil that guarantee the right to the city for all urban dwellers, recognizing housing and land rights for the poor.
"Today, Brazil is a wonderful example of a government engaged in upgrading slums, only because its government failed during the transition from rural to urban," said William Cobbett, manager of Cities Alliance, urging officials in Africa and Asia to learn from the Brazilian experience and plan for the inevitable. "Slums are the result of policy failure, poor planning for inevitable urban growth, bad rural policies, and hostility to the urban poor. Slums exhibit failure of urban governance."
Urban Governance and Local Solutions
A new governance paradigm is gaining prominence that seeks to integrate public, private, and civil society sectors in the development process. Because cities are a critical political arena in which to engage citizens, local and national governments must find ways to connect with community groups.
People living in slums are increasingly organized and determined to have a voice in planning for their future. The CUSP seminar series brought community leaders to Washington to highlight the importance of supporting community-led solutions to problems at the local level.
Last year, Jockin Arputham, president of the National Slum Dwellers Federation in Mumbai, had detailed his experience as a slum dweller who, after facing eviction three times, formed a federation of squatters to fight against evictions and gain secure collective tenure. His organization, Slum Dwellers International (SDI), now operates in 70 cities in India and 23 countries around the world. "The most important thing was for poor people to be seen as very important actors in the agenda-setting aspect," he said. "And the way in which this happened over time was by poor people producing more accurate, up-to-date, detailed information that could be disaggregated right to a pavement, that could be shown or discussed or produced in dialogue with the government or the bureaucracy."
In May, Rose Molokoane, president of the South African Federation of the Urban Poor (FED UP) in Johannesburg, South Africa, detailed her organization's work to mobilize the urban poor to relieve the housing crisis. She underscored the need for community groups worldwide to exchange information, experience, and knowledge to improve their situation and influence policy.
This type of knowledge transfer is the next stage of urban assistance, said Richard Stren of the University of Toronto. Policymakers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America should look to "made in the south" solutions that are based on a better understanding of localized problems, said Stren.
"Decentralization, urbanization, and globalization have brought cities and local government to the forefront," said Jessica Tulodo of USAID's Urban Programs Team. Urbanization is not a challenge, but a great historical opportunity. Incorporating comprehensive urban policies into the development agenda can harness the energy of urban growth as a positive force for human development to create sustainable, equitable, and peaceful cities.
written by Allison Garland