Skip main navigation

Urbanization now and then: New challenges

Urbanization now and then: New challenges
Hello. My name is Martina Kirchberger, and I am the Ussher Assistant Professor in Development Economics at Trinity College Dublin. I’m fascinated by cities, especially the incredibly rapid growth of cities in low-income countries. Urbanisation in developing countries is one of the most important trends of our time. The biggest cities used to be in the developed world. But today, a majority of the world’s largest cities are in developing countries, cities like Delhi, Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Mumbai, and Mexico City. City growth today is different than it was in the past. Cities are growing faster, their populations are poorer, and their governments are weaker. All of these create new and unique challenges for developing countries.
Cities today, however, do have one common feature with cities in the past– people are still suspicious about cities and how they might corrupt morality. People are moving into cities in developing countries at a pace never seen before. It took developing countries 100 to 150 years to grow from 10% to 20% urban, to 60% to 85% urban. In developing countries, that kind of change is happening in just 30 years. So about three to five times faster. Cities nowadays are also growing rapidly in places that have income levels much lower than those prevailing during prior waves of urbanisation. France, Germany, and the Netherlands reached 50% urbanisation levels with incomes, measured in 2012 dollars, of about $5,000.
The United States didn’t become one half urbanised until the 1920s, when per capita income was about $10,000. In contrast, Senegal was 43% urbanised with an income of $1,018. Cote d’Ivoire was 51% urbanised with an income of $1,162. And Haiti was 53% urbanised with an income of $760. Countries are also urbanising today at much lower levels of government effectiveness and capacity. Some of the most urbanised poor countries, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan, also have among the lowest levels of government effectiveness. When we look at low income countries in general, government capacity is not higher in more urbanised countries. Rapid urbanisation can be traumatic.
In a single generation, people are moving from villages with hundreds of people to cities with millions. Traditional and modern institutional and social structures can clash as people try to maintain older social structures that may no longer work for large and anonymous populations. Not to mention, new cities need massive investment in infrastructure, like sewerage, electricity, and water. As we have seen earlier on this week with Laurence, when those investments are not made or not made rapidly enough, cities can become congested, polluted, and dangerous places. Given these rapid changes, it’s perhaps not surprising that cities are often viewed as places to be avoided and contained. That was true in the past, and it’s also true today.
Slums and other signs of poverty and deprivation are obvious when they are in cities. But how does the standard of living in cities compare with that in villages? In my own research with co-authors, we compare living standards of people living at different levels of population density in 20 countries across Africa. What we find is surprising. For almost any measure of living standards, people are better or equally well-off in more densely populated areas. Consider two groups, one living in the lowest density region of the country, and the other one living in the highest density region. Call them villagers and urbanites. About 41% of villagers have a phone compared to 83% of urbanites.
Only 12% of villagers have electricity compared to 64% of urbanites. Differences in theft faced by these groups are much less stark. 29% of villagers had something stolen from the house in the last year compared to 33% of urbanites. Numerous other measures, such as health and housing quality, are either similar or higher for urbanites. So despite how cities in the developing world may sometimes look to outsiders, it comes as no surprise that people wish to move to cities. That doesn’t mean that we should be complacent, however. Cities are improving the lot of the poor, but they can be managed better, especially with modern technology. Technology has helped to solve urban problems in the past.
In 1880, New York had a population of 150,000 horses, producing around 3.3 million pounds of manure a day. But there was no obvious alternative mode of transport available. How did the problem get resolved? The introduction of the automobile. Today, cities have an advantage New York didn’t have– the possibility of adopting new technology from elsewhere. Cities all around the world are experimenting with innovative ways to combine different modes of transport, from inexpensive bus rapid transit systems, electric cars, shared bike schemes, and increased space for walking, to connect and create more sustainable cities. Sao Paolo’s shared bike scheme saved 570 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since it started in 2012. New technologies let us understand and improve cities in new ways.
In my own research, in Senegal, for example, we are using cell phone records to better understand how people travel during the day and what the return to new transport infrastructure investments is. Modern technology and new cities offer a unique opportunity to build a new generation of cities that are, as stated in SDG 11, inclusive safe, sustainable, and resilient. By 2050, 66% of the world’s population is projected to be urban. 90% of this increase in urban populations will take place in Africa and Asia. Getting cities right will, therefore, be crucial for achieving sustainable development.

In this video we explored how urbanization today differs from prior waves of urbanization: it occurs at enormous speeds, in countries with weaker governments and lower levels of incomes.

We also saw for 20 African countries, almost all measures of living standards are higher in cities than they are in the countryside. Still, there are huge challenges that cities in developing countries face when it comes to the provision of basic infrastructure such as water, sewerage, electricity or roads.

But today’s growing cities also have access to technologies that were previously not available: electric cars, bike-share schemes and high-rise buildings.

In addition, data collected via new technologies can be used to gain a better understanding of cities and thereby improve policy-making.

About 66% of the world’s population is projected to live in cities by 2050, and 90% of the increase in urban populations will take place in Africa and Asia. Cities are therefore at the center stage of sustainable development.

  • What do you think are the main reasons why people move into cities around the world?
This article is from the free online

Achieving Sustainable Development

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now