Different Speeds, Different Policies
The timing and rhythm of urbanization vary considerably among less developed regions (see Figure 3). General trends mask wide local variations by country and by city. This Report comments only on a few salient features.
Case studies in different regions and countries reveal that policymakers have usually been loath to accept urban growth and that many have attempted to avoid it by reducing rural-urban migration.
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Source: United Nations. 2006. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision, Table A.17. New York:
Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations.
Latin America and the Caribbean have had a precocious and rapid transition in comparison to other less developed regions.(18) In 2005, 77 per cent of the region’s population was defined as urban, and a higher percentage of its population than Europe’s lived in cities of more than 20,000 inhabitants. The Latin American urban transition took place in spite of many explicit anti-urban policies. On the whole, the urban transition has been positive for development. A proactive stance to inevitable urban growth would have minimized many of its negative consequences, particularly the formation of slums and the lack of urban services for the poor.
The Arab States of Western Asia range from very high to low urbanization levels, with most in an intermediate stage.(19) Urban centres dominate the economies of most of these countries, and rural-urban migration is still strong in several of them. Coupled with natural increase (that is, more births than deaths), this generates some high rates of urban growth. Government policies are generally hostile to migration, which helps to limit the supply of housing for the urban poor, who often find themselves in informal settlements.(20) As elsewhere, failure to plan ahead for urban growth increases density and slum formation in these neighbourhoods.
Asia and Africa are undoubtedly the biggest story, because of their large populations and their prospects for huge urban growth. In 2005, Asia had an urbanization level of 40 per cent, and Africa, 38 per cent. In spite of political opposition to urbanization in many countries, rates of urban growth are expected to remain relatively high over the next 25 years, with marked increases in the urban population of both continents and of the world.
Despite being the least urbanized region in the world, sub-Saharan Africa has an urban population that is already as big as North America’s.(21) The pace of urban growth has tapered off recently, reflecting slower economic growth and rates of natural population increase, as well as some return migration to the countryside. Still, the region is expected to sustain the highest rate of urban growth in the world for several decades, with underlying rates of natural increase playing an important role.
Certain features of migration and urbanization in sub-Saharan Africa are unique, for example, predominance of smaller cities, low population density, high prevalence of circular or repeat migration and links to HIV/AIDS. In some parts of the region, the primary influence on urbanization is the movement of people uprooted by drought, famine, ethnic conflicts, civil strife and war. In recent years, many cities have lost their traditional health and social advantages over their rural counterparts. The impoverishment of urban life has become one of the more conspicuous challenges facing the region.
Despite these features, much migration to urban areas has had a positive impact both on the economy and on the migrants themselves.(22) Many are comparatively poor, especially on arrival, yet migrants generally express a preference for the city over the rural life they left behind.
Policymakers in the region, however, appear to be increasingly averse to urban growth. People living in rural poverty are less concentrated, less visible and less volatile. They lack the potential for mass mobilization and urgent political demands typical of the urban poor. Yet urbanization and urban migration in Africa probably benefit both individual migrants and national economies. Despite conditions of life for the urban poor, given their resources, constraints and opportunities, migrants’ decisions are quite rational.
The vast and heterogeneous Asia-Pacific region contains some of the largest and richest economies, as well as some of the smallest and poorest. It is home to three fifths of the world’s population, half of its urban population and 11 of the 20 largest cities in the world. Asia-Pacific’s urban population has increased by five times since 1950, yet levels of urbanization are low in all but a few countries.
China and India together contain 37 per cent of the world’s total population; thus, their approaches to urban growth are particularly critical to the future of humankind.
India’s urban areas still hold less than 30 per cent of the total population.(23) This is expected to rise to 40.7 per cent by 2030. This relatively low level is partly attributable to a stringent definition of “urban” in India (for instance, it excludes peri-urban areas). Even with such a definition, urbanites are expected to number some 590 million in 2030.
Indian policymakers hope to further retard urban growth by implementing the National Rural Employment Scheme enacted in 2005. Through it, the Government assumes the responsibility for providing a legal guarantee for 100 days of employment in every financial year for every rural household with an adult member willing to do unskilled manual work.(24) It remains to be seen what impact this will have on rural-urban migration.
Natural increase is the major factor in India’s urban growth. Employment opportunities in the formal sector are not expanding and much of the urban labour force works in the informal sector; but this does not prevent migrants from coming in search of the intangible advantages, opportunities and amenities of larger cities. Poverty in small towns has always been higher than in the million-plus cities and medium-size towns; also, between 1987-1988 and 1993-1994, urban poverty declined more sharply in the million-plus cities than in medium cities and small towns.
Much migration to urban areas has had a positive impact both on the economy and on the migrants themselves. Many are comparatively poor, especially on arrival, yet migrants generally express a preference for the city over the rural life they left behind.
As elsewhere, the absolute increase in urban population has challenged the ability of urban authorities to meet increased demands for housing and services. Voluntary associations and Organizations of the Urban Poor (OUPs) have, however, made remarkable advances in addressing these problems, in the face of considerable odds.
India’s urban trajectory contrasts sharply with that of China,where the size of the urban population was strictly controlled between 1949 and 1978, and city life was the privilege of a minority. Subsequent economic policies, however, favoured coastward migration to rapidly growing urban centres in special economic zones. Eventually, migration restrictions were slackened and official bias against cities declined as they became the engine of China’s rapid economic growth.
China is now a major world manufacturing centre, and almost all of its factories are located in or near cities. The country has more than 660 cities, according to
government data. While urban-rural economic disparities might even have widened, living in cities no longer brings automatic privileges. It is projected that, in less than a decade, more than half of the Chinese population, some 870 million people, will be urbanites. Of the 139 cities having 750,000 or more people in 2005, only nine will house more than 5 million inhabitants in 2015. The coastal location of many of these cities is a cause for concern, because of the eventual impacts of global warming on low-lying coastlands (Chapter 5).
China is now at the peak of its urban transition. Given its low urban fertility—an outcome of family planning policies, rising costs of education and shifts in the lifestyle aspirations of urban dwellers—rural-urban migration has been a much more important contributor to urban growth in China than in most other developing countries. It is officially estimated that some 18 million people migrate from rural areas to cities every year, with men predominating. The scale and speed of the transformation are unprecedented; it is accompanied by a variety of environmental and social problems, and yet it is ineluctable.