Smaller Cities: Home to Half the Urban World
Although smaller cities are less often in the news,(13) 52 per cent of the world’s urban population continue to live in settlements of less than 500,000 people. As Figure 2 indicates, smaller cities have always had more than half of the total urban population during recent decades. Moreover, they are expected to account for about half of urban population growth between 2005 and 2015. This graph also shows that larger cities slowly increase their slice of the urban pie over time, but, for the foreseeable future, the smaller cities will predominate.
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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.
The continuing role of smaller cities in absorbing urban population growth offers both comfort and concern. The case of Gaborone, presented in Box 3, reflects both aspects. The good news is that necessary actions are, in principle, easier in smaller cities. For instance, they tend to have more flexibility in terms of territorial expansion, attracting investment and decision-making.
The bad news is that smaller cities generally have more unaddressed problems and fewer human, financial and technical resources at their disposal. Smaller cities—especially those under 100,000 inhabitants—are notably underserved in housing, transportation, piped water, waste disposal and other services. In many cases, poor urban people are no better off than poor rural people. The situation is particularly grave for women, who bear a disproportionate burden of providing the household’s water, sanitation, fuel and waste management needs.(14)
Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, illustrates many of the challenges faced by rapidly growing small towns. Since 1971, the city’s population has jumped from 17,700 to more than 186,000 people, and is expected to reach 500,000 by the year 2020. In the process, Gaborone is being transformed from a dusty administrative post to a thriving financial, industrial, administrative and educational hub.
Gaborone is fortunate by comparison to many other small cities, because revenues from the country’s diamond mines have eased its growing pains. Nevertheless, it faces low-density sprawl; high unemployment rates; a 47-per-cent poverty rate; the proliferation of the informal sector; high HIV/AIDS prevalence rates; residential segregation; and insufficient infrastructure, as well as inadequate water supply and sanitation.
In its brief history, the city has drafted several master plans, each of which has become quickly outdated. To regulate the settlement of its rapidly growing population, the city provided plots of land—free at first, then at nominal cost. Today, fully serviced plots belong to the state, which charges rents on them, but the houses belong to the plot titleholder for a period of 99 years. In order to prevent speculation on the plots, plot holders are not allowed to sell houses for ten years.
This approach has accommodated poor and middle-income people, but not the very poor, who end up in informal settlements where housing is unplanned, difficult to reach and not connected to water and sewage services. Open channels for storm water drainage are often filled with mud, sand or rubbish, leading to recurrent floods and the spread of diseases.
The prospect of accommodating half a million people by the year 2020 makes present problems look like the tip of the iceberg. City fathers talk of creating a sustainable city, but this dream is threatened by the dimensions of impending growth, as well as by the lack of trained planning personnel, critical information and a realistic long-term strategy.
Realizing the vision of a much-expanded and sustainable Gaborone calls for policymakers to act on lessons learned from experience in the city and elsewhere. It calls for the active involvement of the urban poor—the social group most affected by the transformation—and the firm commitment of national and local policymakers to making strategic decisions now in order to prepare for inevitable growth.
Smaller cities may benefit from the worldwide trend towards political and administrative decentralization, under which national governments are devolving some of their powers and revenue-raising authority to local governments. Theoretically, this opens up new opportunities for each local government to display its unique advantages, attracting investment and economic activity.(15) Globalization, which increasingly decides where economic growth will occur, may encourage this process because there is less need to concentrate certain economic activities.(16)
Many smaller cities cannot yet take advantage of decentralized government; but with improved governance, better information and more effective use of resources, combined with the inherent flexibility of smaller cities, decentralization could improve local authorities’ capacity to respond to the challenge of urban growth. The local level also provides greater opportunity for the active participation of women in the decision-making process. This could improve accountability and delivery of essential services.(17)