BRICS urbanisation provides lessons for economic growth and social equity

News, 5 December 2012
Towns and cities across Africa, Asia and Latin America have a wealth of lessons to learn from the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – according to research published today.

Street scene of small shops and a rickshaw in a city in South India.

The research shows how each of the BRICS nations has met difficulties as they have urbanised, especially when they have tried to resist the predictable movement of people into their cities, or have inadvertently steered people or enterprises to economically or environmentally undesirable locations.

But they also provide examples of how to seize the opportunities that urbanisation can provide.

"The route a country takes to urbanisation will have a big impact on economic growth, social equity and environmental sustainability," says Gordon McGranahan of the International Institute for Environment (IIED) and Development, which has published the research in partnership with UNPFA – the UN Population Fund. "Less industrialised nations can learn a lot from the BRICS experiences – both good and bad – and so steer their own urbanisation onto a more secure path."

In addition to the five reports on the way the BRICS nations urbanised, IIED and UNFPA will publish a synthesis report and policy brief on 5 December, and a more detailed book in 2013. The publications will be the focus of a 5-6 December meeting in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa.

Brazil tried in vain to resist urbanisation. The result is that social inequalities endure in what are very divided cities, where the poorest communities are still poorly served despite sustained economic growth. Today, rising urban land prices prevent action to improve infrastructure and services. On the plus side, are the social innovations that some of Brazil’s cities have pioneered in recent decades.

Russia highlights the importance of how and where urbanisation happens. While early urbanisation sparked economic growth, the Soviet Union’s break-up left Russia with poorly located cities that lack the infrastructure and economic capital to compete in the global economy. About 40 per cent of Russia’s cities are based on a single industry, and a single employer dominates in about a third of these cities. Russia faces hard decisions about whether the difficulties faced by flagging cities are inherent in their location, or reflect inappropriate governance systems or land use patterns that it can reshape.

India has not yet come to terms with its urbanisation, and there are signs that, like Brazil, India is inhibiting rather than planning for it. India’s ambivalence is a threat to its economic success, particularly for poor people who find it increasingly difficult to secure a place in India’s cities. But India is at the earliest stage of its urban transition, and will hopefully learn from the experiences of the other BRICS countries. In particular, urban development could play a stronger role in alleviating rural poverty if society accepted and promoted the accommodation of migrants in successful urban areas.

China’s story highlights the importance of taking urbanisation seriously in development strategies. Its radical shift from anti-urban policies to the aggressive pursuit of urban growth in selected areas dramatically emphasizes that urbanization can boost economic growth and reduce poverty. Yet planners must take account of the environment and social equality too. On the social side, China must address the limited rights of the third of urban dwellers who do not have permanent residence permits for the cities they live in.

South Africa’s policy of apartheid suppressed urbanisation for the country’s black majority and forced them to live at the periphery of large urban centres. The people there could serve as a cheap labour force as the country industrialised but could not enjoy the advantages that urban areas bring. More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa’s urban centres remain unequal and fragmented, socially and economically. The country’s prosperity depends on it adopting a more inclusive and integrated approach to planning and managing urban development.

"Despite the very different characters of the BRIC countries, their experiences combine to confirm the immense importance of finding efficient and equitable ways of accommodating urbanisation," says McGranahan. "Several of the BRICS still bear heavy burdens from past failures to accommodate urban growth equitably and efficiently. Their histories highlight the need for pro-active planning."

Download the new briefing paper

Download the new discussion paper

Contacts for interviews:

Gordon McGranahan, IIED

Ivan Turok, Human Sciences Research Council (South Africa)


Mike Shanahan
Press officer

International Institute for Environment and Development
80-86 Gray’s Inn Road
London WC1X 8NH, UK.
Tel: +44 (0)20 3463 7399
Fax: +44 (0)20 3514 9055


Notes to editors

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see:

Associated research papers

Martine, George and Gordon McGranahan (2012), The legacy of inequality and negligence in Brazil’s unfinished urban transition: Lessons for other developing regions, International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development,

Martine, George and Gordon McGranahan (2010), Brazil’s early urban transition: What can it teach urbanizing countries?, Series on Urbanization and Emerging Population Issues 4, IIED and UNFPA London and New York. (

Yeh, Anthony G.O., Jiang Xu and Kaizhi Liu (2011), China’s post-reform urbanization: Retrospect, policies and trends, Series on Urbanization and Emerging Population Issues 5, IIED and UNFPA, London and New York. (

Kundu, Amitabh (2011), Trends and processes of urbanization in India, Series on Urbanization and Emerging Population Issues 6, IIED and UNFPA, London and New York. (

Turok, Ivan (2012), Urbanization and development in South Africa: Economic imperatives, spatial distortions and strategic responses, Series on Urbanization and Emerging Population Issues 8, IIED and UNFPA, London and New York. (

Becker, Charles M., S. Joshua Mendelsohn and Kseniya Benderskaya (2012), Russian urbanization in the soviet and post-soviet eras, Series on Urbanization and Emerging Population Issues 9, IIED and UNFPA, London and New York. (

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