Ask the experts: Urban planet

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Next year most of the world’s population will be living in cities, but for one in three people that will mean a crime-ridden slum with inadequate housing and services.

Rapid urban growth will present enormous environmental problems with overcrowding and poor housing compounded by poor sanitation and a lack of clean water.

With epidemic disease, overcrowding, malnutrition and crime all growing, how can urban cities become safer and cleaner places to live? How can we make city life sustainable against a backdrop of rising urban populations? And with the strain upon current urban infrastructures, what does this mean for the state of our cities in the developing world?

Anna Tibaijuka, executive director at UN-Habitat, (above right) and Fiona Harvey, (above left), FT environment correspondent, answer your questions below.

The ANC has promised to get rid of all the slums in Johannesburg by 2014. Is this a realistic ambition and can it be done without forcing people to leave their homes?
Sue Knights, Johannesburg, South Africa

Anna Tibaijuka: It is widely accepted that political will in responding to the reality of slums is pivotal in mobilising commitment to help the urban poor to gain access to adequate shelter, livelihoods and services. South Africa stands out as one of the countries that has demonstrated consistent political commitment over the past years to large-scale slum upgrading and service provision for the urban poor. It is true that so far its slum growth has fallen by only 0.5 per cent but the South African government and especially the local authorities are demonstrating that it is possible to develop the capacity to use their mandates and resources for sound and participatory urban development policy.

In the past few years, the slum annual growth was reduced to 0.49 per cent while the urban population is growing at a rate of 1.6 per cent. In addition to this, they are mobilising resources to ameliorate the present situations, planning for future needs, expanding local sources of revenue, attracting investment – all in active cooperation and dialogue with residents, but especially with the urban poor.

In such an environment, we hope that people will not be forced to leave their homes, but on the contrary to participate actively in the transformation of their living conditions.

Fiona Harvey: It certainly sounds challenging, but it’s not impossible if the political will and economic resources are there. People should not be forced to leave their homes, but should be given incentives to move elsewhere if that is necessary. Or their homes can be improved to allow people to continue living where they want to, but with access to basic infrastructure.

The UN has found that one of the most important factors in successfully replacing slums with decent housing is a consistent, long term political will to tackle the problem, and unfortunately that appears to be what has most often been lacking in many places in the past. If the ANC can provide that, the practical infrastructural problems can be overcome.

With the unprecedented rise of the city, how can we make sure that we preserve our natural environment? Shouldn’t we put more pressure on urban planners when it comes to environmental conservation?
David Mason, Bradford, UK

Anna Tibaijuka: I believe that the environmental future of the planet will be won or lost in the streets of our cities. After all this is where most of the resources are consumed creating large and unsustainable ecological footprints. If successful, good urban governance and planning can make cities and towns environmentally sustainable.

It has been clear ever since the Rio Conference that environmental management has to be closely linked to the management of cities and human settlements. In response, urban planning has been changing over the years to meet the demands of ever-expanding cities both in the developed and developing world.

Conventional urban planning worked in stable political and institutional environments with well-coordinated mechanisms, sound development strategies, functional markets and effective intervention strategies. But it has been less effective in poor countries with ill-equipped structures and serious problems of governance.

In a world where almost one billion people live in slums, we need to find a new concept of urban planning, which combines concerted action by local authorities, national governments, civil society actors and the international community, works to alleviate the plight of slum dwellers. Urban planning cannot yield positive results in an environment of poverty with weak governance structures.

In other words, urban planners cannot just work to ensure environmental sustainability, our argument is that they must also struggle to make cities and towns socially sustainable. After all poverty is the greatest polluter of them all.

There are an increasing number of initiatives that integrate environmental and social concerns. For example, UN-Habitat has been working closely with other UN agencies and partners on “localising agenda 21” and “sustainable cities” to help reduce the impact cities have on the environment.

What these projects and programmes illustrate is that urban planning will only be effective if it addresses problems that are rooted in the socio-economic and political realities of our time.

Fiona Harvey: In some ways, the rise of the city is a good thing for the natural environment as it keeps more people in one place, rather than spread out everywhere. But cities themselves can be made less environmentally destructive by investing in cleaner power (renewable electricity, for example, or at least ways of avoiding the use of coal or biomass for domestic cooking); by providing good public transport and enforcing pollution standards on private vehicles; by investing in waste management facilities that enable waste to be recycled, composted or burned for energy instead of being sent to landfill; by preserving areas of woodland, wetland or other natural features in parks within cities; and by ensuring that industries are adopting technology that eliminates or minimises the pollution they cause.

The problem of overcrowded slums come from rural people no longer being able to make a decent living. Should the UN and governments around the world consider ways of making rural life more attractive? Overcrowded cities in the developing world ultimately result in slums and shanty towns. How can organisations such as UN-Habitat encourage people to leave urban life and return to the rural areas?
Jamie McGeorge, London, UK

Anna Tibaijuka: There are no silver bullets: the failure of agricultural policies in the developing world are closely linked to the issue of agricultural subsidies in the developed world. Though no one has been able to stop migration to cities, it is clear that a more vibrant agricultural sector would contribute greatly to reducing the flow of people into the urban areas.

As outlined below, there is also an urgent need for comprehensive integrated strategies of rural and urban development that would ensure more investment in infrastructure to link rural and urban areas.

It is interesting to note that the “commission for Africa report” pointed out that Africa is one of the few continents where railway infrastructure only connects mines and extractive industries to the ports, rarely creating networks for market exchange. The report rightly calls on the international community to invest more in infrastructure in order to improve rural urban linkages and to allow agricultural markets to flourish.

Having said this it is important to understand that the growth of cities is not just a phenomenon of migration from rural to urban areas. An increasing proportion of people are migrating from smaller cities to larger cities. At the same time, natural population increases are becoming a significant contributor to urban growth, and reclassification of rural settlements into urban areas is speeding the rate of urbanisation.

The implication of all this is that though rural development can and should be encouraged, it is not an antidote for urbanisation.

Fiona Harvey: I see you live in London - is that because you weren’t able to make a decent living on the land, or did you want the amenities and social opportunities that only a city could provide?

People don’t just want to live in cities because rural life does not offer enough economically - they want better access to services, such as health and education, they want a wider range of opportunity, they want the social life that cities provide. People have wanted to live in cities for millennia. If this is what people want, the answer is not to encourage them to return to rural areas - as they won’t - but to improve the infrastructure of cities to cope with such a large influx of people.

What steps can be taken to improve environmental and sanitary conditions in the various slums around the world? People come to big cities for better jobs, education and healthcare, even if it means living in a slum. Can we improve the standard of living for the slumdweller or are large and controversial slum clearances (like those that we saw in Zimbabwe last year) inevitable?
Rebecca Grant, LA, US

Anna Tibaijuka: The formation of slums is neither inevitable nor acceptable. Experience shows that it is not possible to run the poor out of town either through evictions or discriminatory practices. This is not the answer.

UN-Habitat’s position is that it is possible to help the poor to become more integrated into the fabric of urban society through jobs, education opportunity and access to housing and basic services. This is the only long-lasting and sustainable solution to the growing urbanisation of poverty.

The first and most important step is for governments and local authorities to understand that urbanisation is here to stay. The urban poor are not going to disappear and demolishing their homes is only a recipe for long-term disaster. Instead what is needed for local authorities to eject outmoded forms of governance and old colonial by laws. The poor have a right to the city and it is the job of local authorities to encourage inclusive cities.

When writing my report on Zimbabwe, as the UN secretary general’s special envoy on human settlements issues in Zimbabwe, I stressed the fact that crisis of eviction in that country was a reflection of the larger crisis of urbanisation in Africa. In fact, the report calls for a global commitment to prioritising the shelter needs of the urban poor.

Fortunately, this call has been taken up by the African Union and NEPAD which are strongly committed to improving the management of the cities in the continent and to slum upgrading. This was reinforced in the “commission for Africa report. “Our common interest” stated categorically that urbanisation was the second greatest challenge facing Africa after HIV/Aids and that more resources have to be targeted at urban development. Specifically, it called for the funding of a slum upgrading facility that can help developing countries establish pro-poor mortgage mechanisms.

Unfortunately, one of the sad facts about development is that international aid agencies have tended to invest more in rural areas. The presumption is that anyone living in the city is better off but, as UN-Habitat statistics show, the poor suffer from an urban penalty, the result of which is that their children die younger. This new phenomenon, known as the “urbanisation of poverty”, needs to be taken seriously by everyone so that new ways of funding can be found for slum upgrading and pro-poor shelter.

Evidence from around the world suggests that it is possible to implement massive slum upgrading programmes through good governance; pro-poor policies and most importantly, resource mobilisation. In fact, UN-Habitat’s” state of the world cities report 2006” shows that countries that had successfully reduced slum growth rates, slum proportion and slum populations in the last 15 years shared many attributes: their governments had shown long-term political commitment to slum upgrading and prevention; many had undertaken progressive pro-poor land and housing reforms to improve the tenure status of slum dwellers or to improve their access to basic services; most used domestic resources to scale up slum improvements and prevent future growth; and significant number had put in place policies that emphasised equity in an environment of economic growth.

Fiona Harvey: Large slum clearances are not necessary, and it is possible to move people from one area to another, or to improve their standard of living without resorting to force. Environmental and sanitary conditions can be vastly improved by the supply of basic infrastructure - the most basic are water and sewage. The most important condition for successfully improving people’s living conditions is having the “buy-in” and support of local people.

Too often in the past, aid agencies or governments have provided some piece of basic infrastructure, like a water pump or well, and then left, leaving local people without the means to maintain it, so that a few years later the situation has reverted to what it was before. If local people have a stake in the development of their area, they are more likely to maintain it. This can include giving people legal title to the land they inhabit, which encourages people to invest their resources into developing it, without fear it will be taken from them.

Mexico City has experienced tremendous, and rather uncontrolled growth over the past couple decades. The massive migration of people from the countryside to Mexico City has been a cause of a widespread mentality of people in Mexico that life in the city may bring better opportunities. This massive migration has created misery belts around the city with rising poverty and crime. This has happened in major cities in China, but to a much lesser extent, and it is mostly due to government migration regulations where you are not allowed to move without prior authorisation.

These regulations have proven to be somewhat effective in preventing the massive (relatively speaking) growth of misery belts around cities in China. However, they seem a bit extreme in the sense that it limits people’s freedom of movement around the country. I would just like to know your opinion on these regulations, if they are extreme or effective, and if they would be applicable in other countries where growth rates are worrying. Also, what types of strategies do you suggest in order to prevent misery belts from forming around major cities in the world?
Jaime Mart, Mexico City

Anna Tibaijuka: In a democracy people vote with their feet and move freely to areas that offer them opportunities. It is very difficult to stop the flow of people into cities and towns. Urbanisation is one of the most powerful, irreversible forces in the world.

Today, half of the world’s population live in urban areas and it is estimated that 93 per cent of the future urban population growth will occur in the cities of Asia and Africa and to a lesser extent Latin America and the Caribbean.

Traditionally, urbanisation has been closely linked to the process of industrialisation. With increased agricultural productivity, people were pushed off the land and pulled into the factories in cities.

However, today, Africa and many other developing countries seem to be going through a process of ‘premature urbanisation’. Because of the many conflicts on the continent and the failure of agricultural policies, Africans are being pushed into cities where, unfortunately, there are no jobs.

Clearly what is needed in Africa is a cessation of hostilities. At the same time, policy makers and planners have to design integrated strategies of rural and urban development that, amongst other things, encourage the growth of smaller towns. This is one of the best ways to avoid the creation of mega-cities with their unmanageable slums. However, many such strategies falter because the success of agricultural policies is closely linked to the problems of agricultural subsidies and international trade.

In the case of Mexico city, as in many other mega-cities of the world, we have observed that the economies of scale that a large city offers - employment, education, and social amenities - can become dis-economies of scale. With increased size the negative externalities mean that land and transport costs are extremely high and pollution is rampant.

Fortunately, many cities have a natural tendency to stop growing. This happens either because the rural population no longer moves to the city, for the reasons cited above, or because the urban population starts moving to the suburbs. This is already happening in Mexico City. In the 1960s, the cities annual growth rate was 6 per cent, but today it is 1.3 per cent and it is estimated to go down to 0.8 per cent in 2020.

As for the misery belts in cities around the world, there are many well established ways for in-situ slum upgrading that involve partnership between governments, local authorities, the private sector, non-governmental organisations and the poor themselves. For example, governments in developing countries need to build on the experience of micro-credit facilities to encourage banks to establish pro-poor mortgage mechanisms. What is the needed is the political will and resources to upscale these projects and programmes.

In conclusion, it is important to note that, finally, the problems of slum dwellers are being taken more seriously. The realisation that there are already one billion slum dwellers and that this figure could double by 2030, is starting to galvanise the international community.

In 2000, at the Millennium Summit, world leaders voiced their concern about the increasing number of slum dwellers, going so far as to ensure that one of the Millennium Development Goals (Goal 7 Target 11) was specifically aimed at improving the lives of slum dwellers.

Fiona Harvey: Rather than tell people where they are allowed to live and where they can’t, which most people in a democracy would find an infringement of their freedoms, governments can create incentives for people to move to certain areas and avoid certain others. They can try to direct migration by pointing out to people thinking of moving the opportunities available in a variety of places, rather than the most obvious city (often the capital, or the biggest city).

Providing infrastructure, such as homes, water, electricity and public transport, in an area that is underdeveloped can help to attract migrants there instead of to other, overcrowded places. But in order to be sustainable, there must be jobs available in these areas as well as infrastructure, or people will soon leave them. Governments must accept that people will move to where they see opportunity, with permission or not, and deal with the situation accordingly - trying to stop people doesn’t work, as they find a way to move legally or illegally.

With most of the world’s population living in cities next year, how is the demand for clean drinking water for all going to be met?
Michael Glennan, NY, US

Anna Tibaijuka: Many cities are beginning to confront water shortages. Right now the cities in the developed world are consuming ten times more drinking water than those in developing countries: 500 to 800 litres per day as compared with 60 to 150 litres per day.

However with 93 per cent of the projected urban growth in the next fifteen years taking place in developed countries, in small and medium sized cities, it remains to be seen how they will cope with increased demand for water. Already, in many cities of the developing world, the urban poor are penalised, living without clean water or adequate sanitation. It is therefore hardly surprising that one of the “Millennium Development Goals” is committed to halving the number of people living without clan water and adequate sanitation by 2015.

If this is to be achieved, there is no question that local authorities will need to initiate comprehensive water management strategies. In the future, UN-Habitat’s research suggests that the urban water crisis will lead to more political problems and a crisis of governance. Decisions will have to be made to trade off the competing demands of agriculture, industry and domestic use.

At the same time, local authorities need to ensure greater efficiency in the use of this precious resource. For example, already, in many cities, both in the developed and developing world, over 50 per cent of the water is unaccounted for, often being lost through leakages, this means that local authorities must opt for stringent water audits and commit themselves to improving infrastructure and delivery.

The future need not be bleak if one takes into account that in many developing countries, innovative public/private partnerships, which include community participation, have helped to rationalise the distribution of water, leading to overall savings and the delivery of water to the urban poor.

Fiona Harvey: In the short term the simple answer is that it will not be met, just as it has not been met in the past. In order to meet the enormous demand, governments will have to think imaginatively. Neither the public sector alone, nor the private sector, is likely to have all the answers. There must be partnerships between public sector bodies and private sector companies to bring clean drinking water, and sewage services, to areas that don’t have it. At present, poor people pay more for drinking water than the rich, because they often must buy it from street vendors or travel long distances to get the water, while rich people have a cheap (often state-subsidised) supply piped to their houses.

What positives can come from the rapid rate of global urbanisation we are currently experiencing?
Avi Cohen, Israel

Anna Tibaijuka: Fifty per cent of the world’s population now live in cities and towns and this figure is projected to rise quite steeply within the next few decades. Though the proportion of people living in cities and towns in North and South America and Europe has stabilised at 75 per cent of the population, it is now the turn of Africa and Asia, which though they are still predominantly rural, will be in for a major demographic shift.

Urbanisation is the direct result of industrialisation and though it led to slums in Victorian England, and there are currently over one billion slum dwellers in the world, urbanisation in itself need not be negative. In fact, throughout history, cities have been centres of creativity and economic growth.

Recent statistics from UN-Habitat’s “state of the world cities report” show that the link between urbanisation and socio-economic development cannot be disputed. Cities make countries rich. Countries that are highly urbanised have higher incomes, more stable economies, stronger institutions and are better able to withstand the volatility of the global economy than those with less urbanised populations. Urban-based economic activities account for up to 55 per cent of gross nation product (GNP) in low-income countries, 73 per cent in middle-income countries and 85 per cent in high income countries.

Cities are also the engines of rural development. They provide many opportunities for investment, which not only support urban development but also contribute to rural development in an environment of strong urban-rural linkages.

Finally, contrary to popular perception, infrastructure investments in urban areas are not only cost-effective but also environmentally sound. The concentration of population and enterprises in urban areas greatly reduces the unit cost of piped water, sewers, drains, roads, electricity, garbage collection, transport, healthcare, and schools.

Fiona Harvey: People flock to cities partly because that’s where they want to live - with other people, because that’s where economic and social opportunities lie, and it’s where people are most likely to gain easy access to services, such as health services and education. So the move to cities should not be seen as a bad thing per se, and many people would prefer to live in cities than in the countryside. But the problem is that most people moving into growing cities in developing countries will lack basic infrastructure such as water and electricity, and will find it difficult to get jobs.

The structures that have been set up to aid development in poorer countries must also change to take account of rapid urbanisation. In the past, a lot of aid work in the developing world has been focused on the rural poor, but it is clear that in the future the urban poor will need more and more assistance. That could bring more positives, in the form of better infrastructure and economic development in poor cities.


Slumdwellers suffer what MsTibaijuka the human settlements programme, calls the “urban penalty”. She explains: “They have worse health [because of poor sanitation] and they are affected by the worst effects of industrial pollution. If there is a flood or a disaster, it’s the poor who always suffer.”

Ms Tibaijuka wants central government to direct migration better in order to avoid congestion in the most populous slums. This need not involve controversial forced clearances; instead, strategies can be developed to help people migrating from the countryside find shelter in the cities best able to accommodate them, she argues.

FT series - Urban planet

Fiona Harvey - Lure of the city swells the world’s slums

Alan Beattie - Engine of enterprise in push and pull of rural desertion

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