Can we manage a world of superslums?

A United Nations report on urban population trends makes for powerful, moving, often-depressing, sometimes-hopeful reading. The chief conclusion:

In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of world population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas. This number is expected to swell to almost 5 billion by 2030. In Africa and Asia, the urban population will double between 2000 and 2030. Many of these new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much on decisions made now.

The report makes two observations: Poor people will make up a large part of urban growth, and most urban growth comes from natural increase rather than migration. Once this is understood, three initiatives stand out:

  • Accept the right of poor people to the city, abandoning attempts to discourage migration and prevent urban growth.
  • Adopt a broad and long-term vision of the use of urban space. This means, among other things, providing minimally serviced land for housing and planning in advance to promote sustainable land use, looking beyond the cities’ borders to minimize their “ecological footprint.”
  • Begin a concerted international effort to support strategies for the urban future.

Although attention has been focused on mega-cities, most urban growth will be in smaller towns and cities. Their capacities will need considerable strengthening to meet the future challenge. Action now by governments, civil society and the international community can make a huge difference to social, environmental and living conditions.

Coincidentally, Scott Smith, a futurist at Social Technologies LLC,  says he’s been working on a research brief about the global emergence of “superslums.” Smith says the U.N. report notes that much attention is focused on megacities such as Shanghai and Mexico City, but increasingly the future growth of slums will come in towns and cities with current populations of 500,000 or less. “Even in the U.S., new slums are emerging in unexpected places, such as the outskirts of Palm Springs,” Smith says. He continues:

As these cities grow and spread quickly, and as the rural poor and those living in urban cores move to these cities in search of new work and better living conditions, the rate of growth is far outstripping any ability to build sustainable, quality living environments, even if the will exists to do so. Such will itself is a rarity. The result is the rapid emergence of new slums, and the convergence of many into superslums that ring and connect many of these urban environments.

The U.N. report tries to strike a balanced tone, with “on the one hand” negatives and “on the other hand” positives.

Urbanization — the increase in the urban share of total population — is inevitable, but it can also be positive. No country in the industrial age has ever achieved significant economic growth without urbanization. Cities concentrate poverty, but they also represent poor people’s best hope of escaping it. Cities create environmental problems, but they can also create solutions. Concentrating population in cities can contribute to long-term sustainability. The potential benefits of urbanization far outweigh the disadvantages. The challenge is learning how to exploit its possibilities.

Cities have pressing immediate concerns including poverty, housing, environment, governance and administration; but these problems pale in comparison with those raised by future growth. Reacting to challenges as they arise is no longer enough: cities need pre-emptive policies.

But I was most distressed by the horrible living conditions cited in the report. Consider this sidebar:

“Some say half a million people live there. Others put the
figure at more than a million. No one really knows . . .
Kiberans live in tin shacks or mud “houses” with no toilets,
no beds and little water to speak of. Electricity is almost
non-existent. Most of the pit latrines are full and locked
up, so people use the aptly named “flying toilets” where
they excrete into plastic bags and throw them in piles on
the street. Children play on the heaps.
“Middle-aged Sabina sits by a standpipe to charge
people for filling 20-litre containers with supposedly clean
water. But the pipes, many of which leak, run through
open sewerage ditches. When the pressure drops, as it
does most days, the pipes suck in excrement. “I charge 3
shillings (4 cents) for a jerry can,” she explains. “But when
there is less water, I put the price up to 5.5 shillings.”
Sabina sits there 11 hours a day but doesn’t get paid.
Standpipes are controlled by shadowy figures, rumoured
to be government officials who make good money out
of them.”

The U.N. report emphasizes that social engineering efforts to prevent rural people from migrating to urban areas are futile — and even harmful.

The history of attempts to control rural-urban migratory flows is couched in frustration. Most centrally planned economies attempted it, particularly by limiting migration to the capital city, with little or no effect. Many post-colonial governments have inherited the draconian measures of colonial regimes to prevent urban growth. Efforts to redirect migration flows and to stanch urban concentration often reflect technocrats’ lack of understanding of why migrants move. Explicit government policies systematically attempt to promote de-concentration… [but] …almost invariably [and unintentionally] strengthen concentration.

As an aside: I’ve read hundreds of reports in my career, and I have to say that this is one the best I’ve ever seen. First-rate production values and photography. Clear writing. And, most importantly, strong analysis and conclusions.

For a different view of cities, see this study that concludes that bigger is better for cities. “As cities get larger, they create more wealth, and they are more innovative at a faster rate,” says Arizona State University economist Jose Lobo. “We are not saying that any large city is assured of prosperity forever, but if you look at the collection of cities, large cities have managed to outrun their problems. Large is smart.” He continues:

“The practical application of this work is that the problem is not large cities. The problem is the conditions in which some of the people live in large cities. Policies should be directed to making large cities more livable, not making them smaller.”

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