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POPULATION: World&#39s Poor Abandon Rural Past for Big Cities

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 27 2007 (IPS) - A dramatic population explosion in the world&#39s urban centres will be the single largest influence on development in the 21st century, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) says in a new report released Wednesday.

A young woman smiles from her tent-like hut in the shadow of the most luxurious hotel in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Shehzad Noorani/Still Pictures

A young woman smiles from her tent-like hut in the shadow of the most luxurious hotel in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Shehzad Noorani/Still Pictures

As the world begins to leave its traditional rural past behind, more than half the global population, projected at 3.3 billion, is expected to be living in towns and cities by 2008.

"The battle to reach the Millennium Development Goals, halving extreme poverty by 2015, will be waged in the world&#39s slums," predicts UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid.

The fastest growth will be in poorer urban areas. The slum population of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, more than doubled in a decade, from 1.5 million in 1996 to 3.4 million in 2006.

While much attention has so far been paid to "mega-cities", most future growth is expected to take place in smaller cities of half a million people, or fewer.

By 2030, Asia&#39s urban population will increase from 1.36 billion people to 2.64 billion, Africa&#39s from 294 million to 742 million, and that of Latin America and the Caribbean from 394 million to 609 million.


As a result of these demographic shifts, developing countries will have 80 percent of the world&#39s urban population in 2030. By then, Africa and Asia are expected to include almost seven out of every 10 urban inhabitants in the world.

Still, the UNFPA study, "State of World Population 2007", expresses optimism because "no country in the industrial age has ever achieved significant economic growth without urbanisation."

"Our optimism is derived from our belief that urbanisation can potentially help solve some of the world&#39s most serious challenges in the 21st century," Obaid told IPS.

She pointed out that urbanisation is essential for economic growth, for reduction of poverty, and for long-term sustainability. But fulfilling this potential will require a different mindset, a proactive approach and better governance, she warned.

"We are convinced that much of the misery and degradation that we encounter in cities today could have been prevented," Obaid said.

Therefore, if the proper policies are put in place, she argued, "we should, in the future, be able to make cities more effective in helping to reduce poverty, improve people&#39s lives and reduce the negative environmental impacts of city growth."

Lawrence Smith, Jr., president of the Washington-based Population Institute, told IPS that urbanisation has stabilised in Europe and the Americas with about 75 percent of the population living in urban areas.

By comparison, only 35 percent of Africa and Asia&#39s current population is urban. But the developing world is projected to absorb 95 percent of the world&#39s urban growth over the next 20 years, he added.

Consequently, by 2030 the population of Asia and Africa is estimated to be 50 percent urban, Smith pointed out.

"If you could imagine the five largest cities in the United States – Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston – as a single country, it would be the fourth largest economy in the world."

A similar trend is emerging in developing countries, noted Smith. For example, Sao Paulo, the largest city in Brazil, and Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, each account for about 10 percent of their respective country&#39s population, but more than 40 percent of the gross domestic product.

Obaid said: "We are very much aware of the enormous increase in urban population during the near future. We are also aware of policymakers&#39 current aversion to urban growth in developing countries."

This is what will have to change first. Such an aversion is based on a series of misconceptions, she added.

Hence, improved evidence-based arguments, such as those presented in the new report, are a necessary starting point for change.

"This will help generate advocacy for better policies, an area in which the media will have a critical role. With a more proactive approach and good policies, urbanisation can definitely help reduce poverty and improve sustainability," Obaid told IPS.

Smith said that urban life offers the promise of a multitude of economic and social advantages, including employment availability, whether in the formal or informal sector; better health care; a wide range of social services, as well as educational opportunities.

"But urbanisation also portends a multitude of problems: traffic congestion, air pollution, epidemics of disease, violence and crime."

The overriding concern regarding the urbanisation of developing countries, he said, is the proliferation of poverty. Among the more than three billion people currently living in cities, one billion live in slums and squatter settlements.

Smith said that World Bank estimates indicate that rural areas are home to the majority of the world&#39s poor, but that by 2035 cities will become the predominant sites of poverty.

A vital determinant of whether developing world cities will thrive or collapse under the weight of rapid urbanisation will be governance, Smith continued.

"If developing world city government leaders learn from past urban experience elsewhere, urbanisation could mean a brighter future not only for cities but for entire nations."

According to Obaid, a major issue is land. Providing minimally serviced land for the poor will help meet present and future needs.

With secure tenure, street access, water, sanitation, waste disposal and power, poor people will do their own building.

"An address can be the first step out of poverty," she added.

 
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