The Future of Urbanisation in the Global South- How can it be Sustainable?

Medium Reads, Politics
Reading Time: 6 minutes

It seems that, looking at the past and near future, one of the reliable and guaranteed trends in industrialised human society is that of rapid urbanisation, as populations shift from rural to urban areas to seek opportunity and escape the various constraints of rural life. The United Nations predicts that by around 2050, 64% of the developing world and 86% of the developed world will be living in cities[1]. In many cases, such as in Rio, Cape Town, Mumbai and Guangzhou, this happens in Southern regions. These areas face different challenges to the North, partly due to generally larger populations but less industrialisation, characterised by overcrowding, pollution and poor living standards in general. Therefore, it has been called into question whether those countries can sustain continuous urbanisation.

Firstly, it needs to be made clear exactly to what the word ‘sustainable’ refers. The Brundtland report ‘Our Common Future’ in 1987 famously defined ‘sustainable development’ as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their needs.[2]‘ In this scenario the word ‘sustainable’ refers to a system in which urbanisation takes place where cities are able to maintain or improve standards of living for the average inhabitant as well as manage or reduce the various negative impacts it has on the environment. A large number of factors contribute to the massive challenges urban planners and authorities face in Southern countries in this regard.

Urbanisation on the whole is environmentally sustainable. The average global city dweller has a carbon footprint smaller than their country average[3], mainly because of smaller travelling distances. This is especially true in developed countries, and many less developed Southern countries are currently experiencing high rates of economic growth. And whilst problems like habitat destruction and industry growth harm the environment, not only do urban dwellers take up far less space than rural citizens, having a smaller impact on habitats, industrialisation in Southern countries seems to be an inevitability of the modern global economy because of global trade networks and technological development. After all, the alternative to this industrialisation is vast rural unemployment and greatly reduced foreign investment.  

Importantly, almost always authorities compared to the sheer volume and pace at which urbanisation happens have a fundamental lack of resources with which they can manage growing cities. That is to say, rapidly growing cities require billions of dollars of infrastructure, vastly expanded public services and a flexible and open job market if standards of living are meant to be maintained. The archetypal manifestation of these kinds of problem has been the vast expansion of slums in Southern cities around the world.

The NGO Habitat for Humanity defines a slum as an overcrowded, poor urban area with “limited or no access to basic services,’ a lack of stable structures and housing, and little land tenure[4]. The kind of infrastructure required for maintaining basic services such as sewage, for example, require both large amounts of money to construct and maintain but also time to install. This is especially difficult in cities, where construction place is often difficult to clear and the intensity of usage of this infrastructure, given a vastly higher population density, is many times greater than in rural areas.

Note the example of Mumbai, which has grown from around 3 to 2 million people from 1950 to the present day[5]. It is itself the largest urban agglomeration in India, and in terms of GDP the richest city in South West and Central Asia. However, several historical and geographical factors mean that India industrialised its economy far later than others, resulting in fundamentally underdeveloped economy compared to countries like the United Kingdom. Note that whilst India has a population over 18 times larger than that of the UK, its government budget in 2018 was $360 billion[6], compared to the UK’s over $1 trillion. India’s GDP per capita is $1900, a small figure compared to nearly $40000 in the UK.

Furthermore, Mumbai and cities like it are urbanising at a pace unprecedented in developed northern countries. The introduction of certain technologies vastly increases the efficiency of agricultural production. However, given that usually there is little room for expansion, the result is that a vast number of jobs in agriculture eventually become redundant. This incentivises people to seek new jobs and lives where business and education is more concentrated-cities. This process of urbanisation happened more rapidly in developing Southern countries, beginning with colonisation, because the technologies were far more advanced by the time they were introduced to developing markets, compared to gradual improvements as they were researched in developed countries. For example, when Norman Borlaug developed high-yielding varieties of dwarf wheat and rice in the ‘Green Revolution’, it had a vastly larger impact on the developing world than the developed, simply because the agriculture of the latter was more advanced in the first place[7].

Another reason why urbanisation happens more rapidly in LEDCS (Less Economically Developed Countries) is the existence of foreign actors in those countries. Note that large foreign investors and companies played a far larger role in the development of cities like Mumbai compared to cities like London because at the time when London began expanding rapidly not only were there fewer of them but it was far more difficult because of the inability of the technology of the time to solve problems such as long-distance communications. In LEDCS during both the colonial and modern period cities became hubs for administration and transportation for Trans-National Corporations (TNCs) as well as colonial governments. For example, after Mumbai’s establishment as a port city a large number of textile mills were set up inside the city by foreign companies in order to decrease the distance goods have to travel before export.

This rapid creation of jobs centred around ports and administrative buildings is exactly what quickly attracts labourers displaced from the agricultural industry. Often these people do not have capital to invest and also do not have much time to prepare for their move, given their usually desperate situation once they can no longer find a job in their home region. These two reasons contribute to a lack of adequate and organised housing once they arrive in cities. Often, they turn to improvised shelter. City planners can do little to provide housing because of a lack of funds, so therefore try and contain the problem by forcing it into small areas on the outskirts. This results in the creation of slums. Many lack an address, which can be a barrier to employment. Almost always they never enter formal employment and thus are much more likely to be exploited or turn to crime as job opportunities are exhausted.

Therefore, this is a simply unsustainable position for cities in the global south because not only are the living standards of the poor already decreasing as overcrowding intensifies, problems such as disease and crime can spread. In the South African slum of Khayelitsha, in Cape Town, 5 families on average share each toilet[8]. This intensifies the risk of outbreaks of such diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Cities in the global South therefore face three problems in this regard- firstly, limiting the pace at which urbanisation occurs. Large numbers of people continue to flow into slums like Khayelitsha either because they are unaware of conditions that persist there or are simply in a desperate situation in the countryside. Rural employment programs and subsidies are a means of accomplishing this, as well as urban expansions into a larger, more spread out area.

Secondly, administrations at the regional and federal level must root out corruption, a problem which severely limits the government’s ability to provide services that improve standards of living. In Brazil it is estimated that up to 30% of public funds are embezzled[9], contributing to a lack of housing, education and infrastructure in cities, like the sprawling Rio de Janeiro, which has a slum population of 1.4 million[10]. Finally, a lack of proper legal documentation, such as land right tenure in many slums around the world, makes it even more difficult for authorities to collect information and manage problems- its harder to track down a criminal if you have no idea where he or his associates live.

A more sinister consequence of this fact is that since slums legally are not incorporated districts of a city, urban planners on these grounds deny these areas various government services. This problem is widespread and dangerous: the NGO WaterAid names land tenure as the first reason responsible for a lack of urban sanitation[11]. Authorities are less able to even judge the scale of urbanisation in certain areas, and distribute resources effectively, without accurate population figures. Those without land tenure are therefore ‘consequently not identified for, or are consciously left out of, planning for urban water and sanitation services.’ This is simply not sustainable not only because it decreases the standards of living of slum dwellers, problems like fires, crime and disease easily transcend district boundaries to affect other areas.

In addition, slum dwellers are unlikely to make any significant investments towards improving their quality of housing past that of an unsafe, merely improvised level if no legal protections exist to guarantee their ownership of it. In India in 2017, over 260,000 people were evicted from their homes, mostly from urban slums[12]. When cities expand, large infrastructure projects require space: over 11 million people in India are at risk of eviction, 25% of which because of infrastructure projects[13]. In other scenarios, cities destroy slums simply to try and make the problems of disease and crime go away. This sometimes violent process turns peoples lives over and only shifts the problem elsewhere, an unsustainable solution that can largely be attributed to the fact that according to the records of the government, slum dwellers have no guaranteed right to their land.

In conclusion, the greatest challenge Southern cities face when it comes to sustainable urbanisation is the living standards of their inhabitants. Authorities simply need more money for infrastructure and services, money that is often wasted due to corruption. The flow of rural migrants needs to be either reduced outright or directed into new urban industrial centres. Finally, Southern governments fail its poorest urban residents and risks making bad problems worse when it does not legally recognise the land tenure of slum dwellers, and evicts for projects ultimately designed to benefit those who already have the privilege of a secure home.














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