Urbanization: An Agenda of Under-addressed Insecurities

An urbanized place has the following characteristics: a high concentration of population, a municipal governance structure, infrastructural services, and economic activity to support the population. ‘Urban problems’ occur when the growth of one or more of these attributes are out of balance. In 2015, 54% of the world lived in cities; 70% of the world will live in urban centers by 2050 (62% in Africa, 65% in Asia and 90% in Latin America). Meanwhile, the global rural population, currently at 3.4 billion, is expected to decline to 3.2 billion by 2050.

Despite its hype, urbanization is neither inherently positive nor negative; whichever direction it takes depends on the planning and governance underlying it as well as the growing international networks of city leaders and authorities. The following is a summary of major public policy and planning issues to keep in mind. First, urbanization does not have to be discussed to the exclusion of rural development. Second is the need to focus on disaster risk management in urban planning. Third is the need to make provision of services fiscally sustainable.

1) City bias and rural neglect: The rural and urban are two sides of the same coin, an idea largely overlooked in most articles and reports addressing the challenges and trends of today’s rapidly developing mega-cities. Neglecting the rural side restricts the conversations necessary for improving rural development, such as increasing agricultural innovations and systematically documenting land rights, all of which enhance long-term rural prospects.

The Harris and Todaro model, despite its theoretical shortcomings, argues that the rural push and the urban pull is generally motivated by perceived urban-rural differences in expected income rather than actual earnings. The reality is that rural migrants may find themselves in crowded urban slums living on the margins of a saturated formal sector working in dead-end service jobs. Poverty, marginalization, and insecurity are permanent conditions for the vast majority of migrants and refugees (depending on the driver of migration). However, the model suggests that if expected urban income equals rural income, there may be less incentive to migrate.

Since restricting urban-rural migration has been shown to be ineffective in limiting city growth, even harming economic, social and environmental development, it is far better to have policies that respect mobility as a basic human right while improving both rural and urban development, especially through improving land rights, use and distribution in addition to promoting economic competitiveness and improving rural livelihoods. The ideas of resiliency and smart planning needn’t solely be highlighted in urban environments, although both the rural and urban agenda will require diversified policies to address unique challenges.

2) Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) into Urban Planning: The benefits of urbanization amass according to the agglomeration theory—urban areas are seen as having inbuilt advantages that increase opportunities and enable cities to be great drivers of growth and poverty reduction. Urban life is associated with higher levels of education, better health, enhanced political and culture involvement, and better access to social services.

While there may be increasing opportunities, sustainable development challenges will become increasingly concentrated in cities, namely lower-middle-income countries, bringing about issues of waste management, greenhouse gas pollution, limited housing, health, poor living quality and other issues that call for a re-thinking of interdependent systems. Disasters will likely further aggravate the aforementioned environmental and socio-economic inequalities. With the Syrian conflict pushing refugees to primarily urban centres, namely in Lebanon and Jordan; the Ebola outbreak’s impact on Freetown; and Typhoon Haiyan’s devastation of Tacloban, cities are facing the impact of different disasters.

The tasks to address are then two-fold: 1) the day-to-day chronic stressors that weaken social fabric (high unemployment, inadequate social services, inefficient transportation systems and poor sanitation); and 2) the acute shocks that are sudden (i.e., earthquakes, tsunamis). Disaster and climate risk management should be placed at the core of all development planning, investment and decision making, given that the growing interdependencies of different systems will yield particularly high costs for human lives, infrastructure, and environmental losses. Three areas will need to be standardized in urban planning: a) highlighting the role of DRR for increasing risk information for decision-making; b) having a governance framework to address DRR through clear roles and responsibilities; and c) requiring different departments and sectors, as well as the public, to work together in identifying measures in preparedness, recovery and response. The good news is that the majority of 2050’s urban infrastructure has yet to built (up to 75%), allowing space to see ways of building up hazard-resistant systems and improving existing facilities (i.e., storm-resistant housing and other innovations).

3) Fiscal Sustainability of Service Provision: Finally, service provision will especially be a fraught issue in rapidly expanding cities for two reasons: 1) increasing competition and involvement in the informal sector often leads to urban poverty, signaling pronounced challenges to enabling the same availability of safety nets in urban areas as there are in rural areas; and 2) while the government may respond with social protection programmes, this raises questions on their prolonged fiscal sustainability depending on growth projections.

Urban centres will need to plan how the benefits of city life will be equitably shared, especially through policies that aim to balance the distribution of urban growth. This can prevent excessive centralization of administrative and economic functions, enabling better access to social services and efficient service delivery. Good governance is crucial to for economic and social development and this requires listening to those on the “fringes” by taking note of innovations in slums and including informal settlements into citywide planning documents. Another way to address this is through prioritizing data for policymaking in a way that accounts for the differences of service delivery in urban centers versus that in more stretched out rural areas. New metrics, both quantitative and qualitative, first need to be differentiated in qualifying urban, rural and peri-urban environments (i.e.by demanding comparative adjustments) and most importantly need to reflect the actual issues and indicators that the urban-poor view as important to their lives to combine with or develop new indicators in multidimensional composite scores.

In sum, public policy cannot afford to lag behind the rapid path of urbanization. Alongside considering proactive planning into new models of urban development, this requires integrated approaches alongside accurate and timely data on global trends to evaluate current and future policy priorities.


Ruth Canagarajah completed her MPhil in Public Policy at the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS).

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