Study warns of failure to plan for rapid urbanisation in developing nations

News, 6 August 2010
Governments in Africa and Asia must embrace and plan for rapid urbanisation or risk harming the future prospects of hundreds of millions of their citizens — with knock-on effects worldwide — warns a study published by IIED and UNFPA (the UN Population Fund) on 6 August 2010.

It says policymakers should heed lessons from Brazil whose failure in the past to plan for rapid urban growth exacerbated poverty and created new environmental problems and long-term costs that could have been avoided.

The proportion of developing countries that have adopted policies to curb urban growth rose from 46 percent in 1976 to 74 percent in 2007 and the study warns that this will "undoubtedly result in increasing poverty and environmental degradation."

The study’s authors — Dr George Martine (past President of the Brazilian Association of Population Studies) and Dr Gordon McGranahan (of IIED) — say the critical first step is for policymakers to recognise the rights of poor people to live in cities and share in the benefits of urban life. The next is to plan ahead for their land and housing needs within a constantly updated vision of sustainable land use.

"A 'business-as-usual' approach that simply reacts to urban growth will be utterly inadequate," says McGranahan. "To minimise the negative impacts of rapid urban growth developing countries can learn from Brazil’s experiences and, especially, its mistakes."

Brazil's population is now about 80% urban (up from 36% in 1950). The country has urbanised far faster than countries in Europe and North America but this transition came at considerable and preventable cost to the population, because Brazil failed to address social inequalities and plan for urban growth.

Cities now provide 90% of Brazil’s wealth but in 2007 more than a quarter of Brazil’s urban citizens were below the poverty line and one in 15 were in extreme poverty. This means millions of people are excluded from key services and other benefits of urban life. They face immense social, economic and environmental challenges such as crime, pollution, unsafe housing and preventable diseases.

The study shows how Brazil adopted policies that discriminated against urban settlement by poor people.

"The story of Brazil’s urban growth shows how deep-rooted inequalities have combined with negative policy stances to generate many of the social and environmental problems that still plague Brazilian society," says George Martine. "Policymakers in Africa and Asia should embrace and plan for urban growth so they can take full advantage of its potential to contribute to development, rather than vainly attempting to prevent it as Brazil did."

According to the latest projections, Africa's urban population is expected to grow by 936 million in the first half of this century while Asian urban areas will grow by more than 2 billion. Although the numbers may vary somewhat, the trend is inexorable.

Policies aimed at preventing or retarding this growth instead of preparing ahead for it will only make matters worse. Looking ahead, policymakers need to pay special attention to the land and housing needs of the poor. This not only improves the lives of poor people but enables the city to become prosperous and habitable for all.

"Urbanization and massive urban growth in developing countries loom as some of the most critical determinants of economic, social and ecological well-being in the 21st century," says Martine. "Policymakers can learn much from the experience of Latin American countries — and especially Brazil — that have already gone through an early urban transition."

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