Urbanisation: risk or opportunity?

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By next year (June 2008), for the first time in history, over half of the planet’s population will live in urban areas. By 2030, 5 billion people – 60 % of the world’s population – will live in cities. In Asia and Africa, urban numbers will double in the space of a single generation: between 2000 and 2030, the number of city-dwellers in Asia will rise from 1.4 to 2.6 billion and from nearly 300 million to 740 million in Africa.

In the future, virtually all demographic growth will occur in cities in the developing world. But these cities are already faced with urgent problems such as poverty, drinking water shortages, sanitation issues and the uncontrolled expansion of slums. Public authorities are struggling to meet current needs, but are insufficiently prepared for the effects of urban growth on this scale.

Many newcomers to the city will be poor and will simply add to the already one billion people who live in urban slums. Experience has shown that regardless of the situation they find themselves in, newcomers to urban areas remain there.

In the past, cities have often reacted by trying to limit rural-urban migration. They have neglected the poor, or simply ignored them, to such an extent that millions of city-dwellers today live without running water, electricity, schools or hospitals. This approach has cost many lives and led to crisis situations in cities.

But we are wrong to pin the blame on migration, for three reasons. The first is that urban growth to a large extent is not due to migration but to natural population growth. The second is that it is urbanisation that causes urbanisation, not migration: people move to the places where they are more likely to earn a living. The third, more fundamental reason is that properly managed migration contributes to urban and rural development.

No industrialised country has developed without this vast economic and social transformation, accelerating the division of work and promoting openness to the world. Most poor urban dwellers owe their survival to the informal sector, where they demonstrate amazing ingenuity, which is key to their survival. They are also remarkably productive: economists acknowledge that the informal work economy is of vital importance to cities, and a major driver of growth in developing countries. This shows that that while urbanisation draws poverty, it is not the root cause.

Urbanisation could even be an opportunity for rural communities which are in a position to feed cities. To oppose rural and urban development therefore leads nowhere. Furthermore, if cities create environmental problems, they can also help to resolve them. If they are managed on a sustainable basis, they can have mainly positive effects on the environments.

Urban growth in the coming decades will be higher than ever seen before: it carries both risks and major development opportunities. The response should be commensurate with the issues at stake. To begin, we need to accept the inevitable process of urbanisation and its advantages, and recognise the right of the poor to benefit from what urban life can offer them.

Yet, even if the poorest segments of society harbour an unexpected energy and are capable of innovative solutions to meet the needs of their communities, the “urban dream” of so many men and women cannot happen without external help. In particular, cities should be able to provide city-dwellers with the services that meet their most basic needs. Housing is essential, since having a safe living environment is a key factor in helping poor people achieve independence. However, education and health services are also vital, and play a key role in sexual and reproductive health. It has been shown that educated women who have access to information and basic healthcare on average have fewer children, who are healthier. Bringing populations together facilitates their access to such services.

Up until now, megacities have attracted most of the attention, but half of city-dwellers in fact live in cities with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, where resources and expertise are often cruelly lacking. They should not be marginalised.

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Our future is urban, whether we like it or not. It is imperative that urban development is given a helping hand and its rightful place in public policies so that its full potential can be reached in terms of development and poverty reduction in cities as well as rural areas.

The battle to reduce poverty by half before 2015 will be waged in the world’s slums.

Jean-Michel Severino

L’urbanisation, risque ou chance ?

Le Monde, 28 June 2007

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