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Urban growth is a chance for changeBy Thoraya Ahmed Obaid and Jean-Michel Severino Guardian Weekly - page 19, 5 July 2007
By next year, for the first time in history, more than half of the Earth's population will live in cities. The number of city-dwellers is expected to top 5 billion before 2030, accounting for 60% of the total population. In Asia and Africa their number is expected to double in just a generation, with Asian city-dwellers numbering 2.6 billion by 2030 and the population of African cities climbing to 740 million.
Almost all future population growth will be concentrated in the cities of the developing world. But they are already battling with serious problems such as poverty, lack of drinking water and sanitation, and the anarchic spread of shantytowns. The authorities are trying to satisfy existing needs but they are largely unprepared to cope with the consequences of such spectacular growth.
Many of tomorrow's city-dwellers will be poor, swelling the ranks of the billion who already live in slums, but however bad their predicament, experience shows that newcomers do not leave the city once they have moved.
Urban centres have often reacted by trying to restrict incoming migration. They have neglected, or simply ignored, the poor too. Millions of people must consequently survive without running water, electricity, schools or hospitals. This approach has claimed countless lives and brought many cities to the verge of crisis.
But it is a mistake to penalise migration, for three reasons. First, most urban expansion is not due to migration, but to natural population growth. Second, migration is not driving urbanisation, quite the opposite: people simply move to places where they stand a better chance of earning a living. Third, and most importantly, migration, if properly managed, can be a positive factor in urban and rural development.
None of the industrialised countries developed without this vast economic and social transformation, speeding up the division of labour and acting as a catalyst for increasing trade with the outside world. Most poor city-dwellers survive thanks to the informal sector, displaying considerable enterprise in their struggle to survive. They are also remarkably productive. Economists agree that informal work makes a vital contribution to the urban economy and is a key growth factor in developing countries. Poverty may go hand-in-hand with urbanisation, but it does not cause it.
Urban growth may even represent an opportunity for the rural community, if it can find ways of feeding the cities. It is consequently sterile to oppose rural and urban development. Furthermore, although towns cause environmental problems they may also help to solve them and, if managed sustainably, have a largely positive impact on the environment.
The expansion we will see in coming decades, unprecedented in history, presents major risks and opportunities for development. In response to this challenge we must start by accepting that urban growth is inevitable but holds the promise of future benefits. And the poor are entitled to their share of those opportunities.
But, although the poorest people are remarkably enterprising in their efforts to satisfy the needs of their community, they cannot achieve the urban dream shared by so many without outside support. In particular, cities should be able to provide their inhabitants with services covering their most basic needs. Above all, that means housing. Access to safe lodging is a key factor in enabling poor people to fend for themselves.
It is in the world's slums that the battle to achieve the UN's millennium development goals will be waged, in particular the goal of halving extreme poverty by 2015. It will demand long-term vision, strategic planning and courageous leadership, determined to attack the vested interests that perpetuate urban poverty. But international action is also needed to support local efforts, because market forces alone will not be enough to satisfy the needs of the poorest city-dwellers.
Like it or not, our future will be urban and it is high time we started supporting urban development and acknowledging the pivotal role it should play in public policy. Only then can we capitalise on its potential to reduce urban and rural poverty.
Thoraya Ahmed Obaid is executive director of the UN Population Fund, and Jean-Michel Severino is head of the French development agency (AFD)
Copyright The Guardian Weekly 2007 / reproduced for reference reasons only.