An Urbanization Crisis in The Developing World?

From Ancient times up to the first half of the 20th century urbanization was a standard measure of development: the more urbanized a country, the more GDP per capita. However, from the 1960s-70s onwards, urbanization and economic growth parted ways in ex-colonies that gained their independence. Here, as population in cities suddenly exploded, infrastructure development and economic growth could not keep the pace. This situation resulted in an urbanization crisis in the region. Its most spectacular phenomenon is the emergence of slums. But what is the difference between the urbanization in the countries of the global North and South? Why did slums emerge? This study intends to answer these questions.

In the 21st century we are living in an urbanized world. According to the UN, in 2007-8 the number of those living in urban agglomeration (then more than 3.3 billion people) had for the first time surpassed the number of those living in villages. This process seems to be pressing forward unstoppably: In 2015 nearly 4 billion people lived in cities, according to forecasts their numbers might surpass 6.3 billion by 2050 (WUP 2014). On this basis, we can claim with certainty that urbanization, or cities themselves play an ever more determining role in the life of humanity.

 However, taking a closer look at the cities of the developing world we see significant issues. Here population growth is so fast, that neither economic nor infrastructural development is able to keep up the pace. Thus, a significant portion of people living there are forced to dwell in slums. It is true that the cities of the developed world also do not operate faultlessly – after all, sustainability is not realized in either a social or a natural sense, thus here too we encounter segregation, urban poverty, environmental pollution etc. Moreover, if we think about the beginning phases of modern urbanization, for instance in London or Paris, we also see that numerous workers there lived in slums. Yet their size cannot be compared to the problems that urban regions in developing countries face, where we can indeed speak of a crisis.

The Relevance of the Industrial Revolution

Although cities existed already in the millennia before our time, the proportion of urban population globally remained limited up to the 19th century. According to some estimates, in 1780 there were fewer than 100 cities with a population larger than 100,000 worldwide.  Starting from the Industrial Revolution, there was a steep rise in both the number of cities and the size of their population. Industrialization started such processes and created the preconditions for urbanization that made the much faster growth of cities possible. Basically, we distinguish four such factors, or processes.

Migration: The Industrial Revolution had a great effect on the social division of labor. The emancipated serfdom shifted from the agricultural into the industrial sector, which in terms of spatial distribution meant a pronounced migration from the villages into the cities (Kovács Z. 2002).

The emergence of great population concentrations: As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, machine production slowly marginalized artisanal manufacturing. Owing to industrial development, the average size of factories grew. Thus, workers arriving in the city were employed in ever larger-sized factories. Near these, ever more people aggregated (Kovács Z. 2002).

The demographic explosion: The Industrial Revolution brought about developments in nearly all spheres of life (agriculture, nutrition, medical sciences, health care), and so the chance to survive increased substantially. Thus, mortality rate decreased while the number of births remained high, the demographic gap began to widen, and a population explosion followed (Kovács Z. 2002).

Technical development: Technical development ushered in by the industrial age made metropolitan infrastructure possible (for instance, drinking water and sewer systems etc.), thus it became technically possible to sustain and create larger cities than earlier (Kovács Z. 2002).

It is important to understand that these processes depended upon and developed in interaction with one another. Owing to its engine, an innovation-based, tremendous economic growth, the ever more forcefully appearing tendencies (ever larger urban populations) did not collapse, as the growing economy was in a position to absorb the labor force supply arriving in the city, and the technological developments were largely able to serve the ever more significant population.

 The Phases of Urbanization: “The Urbanization Boom”

Modern urbanization that started with the Industrial Revolution is divided into four phases by Hungarian researchers: the explosion of cities, suburbanization, de-urbanization, re-urbanization. No complete agreement exists with regards to the characteristics of each phase. One tends to agree, however, with regards to the first phase of urbanization, as all countries of the world already have this phase behind them, and the passing of time has made objective retrospection and the recognition of regularities possible in a more clarified manner.

On the whole, we can say that, owing to the processes discussed above, the first phase happened at the end of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century in developed countries and lasted well into the 1960s-70s (in the case of developing countries, however, we may only speak of the explosion of cities starting from the 1960s). The spatial clustering of labor happened simultaneously with the large scale and rapid concentration of population, as a result of which construction of typically low quality living space began on a mass scale, and the size of built-up areas increased.  Owing to overcrowding and the increasing degree of pollution, a poor quality work- and living environment emerged, which in turn resulted in serious health issues: the densely populated city quarters were rife with epidemics. Moreover, significant social tensions as well as serious problems emerged: the living quarters of the poor and the rich were sharply delineated from one another due to segregation, and the poor living quality sketched above primarily affected the lower-status social strata (Tóth J. 2002).

László Lackó explains the links between the quantitative and the qualitative factors or urbanization as follows: “The rapid increase of the city-dwelling population, or quantitative urbanization was normally only followed belatedly by rising quality of supplies, the spread of a more civilized lifestyle, in other words: by qualitative urbanization. It remains an important question, however, which phase is characterized by the shift from a quantitative into qualitative urbanization, and it is not an ancillary factor, either, how large the gap between the two phases or two groups of factors is (Lackó L. 1997: 282).” In other words, the problems that arose out of the urban explosion and the supply of large population concentrations led to the belated appearance of public services: for instance, water supply, sewer construction, trash removal (Tóth J. 2002).

Thus, in the case of urbanization we can speak in terms of gap, and we can distinguish between a quantitative and qualitative phase. In the beginning phase of urbanization in the Western world (urban explosion), the gap widened slightly, as a result of which many slums emerged in European metropolises. However, the gap was successfully closed, thus the slum-issue was basically solved. For while we can speak of segregation and social inequality in the cities of the developed world, we do not encounter such slums anywhere that would aggregate a significant portion of the urban population.

Urbanization Trends Today

While earlier (from ancient times to the first half of the 20th century) urbanization was a privilege and the measure of development in the world’s developed regions (the more urbanized a country, the higher its GDP/capita). Starting from the 1960s-70s, urbanization’s center of gravity shifted into developing nations that were recently decolonized (Kovács Z. 2002), where economic growth and urbanization gradually parted ways. In 1950 only 42% of the world’s urban population lived in smaller and medium income countries, in 2015, nearly 75% and in 2050 roughly 80% is expected to live there. On the basis of growth rate, the continent with the fastest urbanization is Africa, where the urban population grew fourteenfold between 1950 and 2010: from 33 million to 476 million. By 2050 this number is expected to reach 1.3 billion people (WUP 2014).

The growth trend is so rapid that “public services, housing, and public transportation are unable to keep pace with growing demands, just as the formal labor market is unable to absorb the crowds flowing into the city” (Ricz J. 2009: 29). Thus, in absence of the necessary infrastructure, a segment of the population is forced to live in slums. Although, when viewed in terms of the percentage rate of urban population, developing countries seem to be growing according to the historical tendencies observed in developed nations, in terms of absolute numbers their growth is unprecedented (Lee, K. N. 2007). For this reason, while there were problems related to urbanization in European metropolises that grew steeply after the Industrial Revolution, today we can speak of an urbanization crisis happening in developed nations.  “The urbanization crisis is a complex phenomenon that contains economic and social loss of efficiencies resulting from urban overcrowding as well as environmental issues, which have serious consequences in both the short and the long term, as well as on the micro- and the macro level with regard to a broadly interpreted progress.”

Slums are one phenomenon of the urbanization crisis. UN-HABITAT defines slums as follows: A slum household is one where a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area lack one or more of the following:

  1. durable housing of a permanent nature that protects against extreme climate conditions;
  2. sufficient living space which means not more than three people sharing the same room;
  3. easy access to safe water in sufficient amounts at an affordable price;
  4. access to adequate sanitation in the form of a private or public toilet shared by a reasonable number of people;
  5. security of tenure that prevents forced evictions (UN-HABITAT 2006).

Today the more than 800 million slum-dwellers make up almost one quarter of the world’s urban population. In sub-Saharan Africa the situation is even graver, as there almost 62% of urban populations live in slums. Regrettably, the forecasts are also not encouraging (UN-HABITAT 2013). According to the UN, by 2050 the population of slums might reach 2 billion people (UN-HABITAT, 2012).

Destitution in slums means a great deal more than mere lack of money. People living here are vulnerable to, on the one hand, the dangers of urban living (dangerous waste disposal sites, highways, railways near their dwellings)(Lowe, M. D. 1992), on the other hand they have no protection against natural catastrophes (for instance floods, landslides etc.) (Lee, K. N. 2007). Owing to the unhealthy environment, these factors contribute to frequent occurrence of disease.

Living circumstances characteristic of slums can be summed up well by the following data: At least 1 million people still die of such diseases that directly relate to inappropriate quality of drinking water and hygienic provisions (WHO, 2016). Out of 10 children, 1 dies before his/her fifth birthday in the cities of poor countries városaiban (Satterthwaite, D. 2004).

Slums of the developing world face similar difficulties today as Victorian London at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution: typhoid fever, cholera, tuberculosis. However, the situation is even more grave due to so-called modern diseases like asthma, heart disease, cancer etc. Thus, these people are forced to bear a double burden (Stephens, C. – Stair, P. 2007).

How could this situation come to be? How does this region’s urbanization differ or coincide with the urbanization of the developed region?

The (Divergent?) Urbanization of the Developed World

We find many divergent views in specialized literature in relation to the question of whether the urbanization trends are influenced by the same set of factors in both developing and developed nations.

György Enyedi writes in his study entitled “Urban World” that the fundamental difference between urbanization in the developed and in the developing world originates in divergent timing. In the case of the urbanization of developing nations, “belatedness […] has several characteristics as its consequences, but fundamentally the same city growing mechanism is at work, which substantially increased the cities of developed Europe from the first half of the 20th century […] onward.” (Enyedi Gy.  2003: 13). In other words, the “two worlds” find themselves in a different phase of modern urbanization (Enyedi Gy. 2003). Enyedi supposes that “urbanization cycles that emerged in the developed world continue worldwide with modifications that originate in belatedness, the historically developed network of cities and cultural differences” (Enyedi Gy. 2003: 14).

Viktória Szirmai shares this view, according to whom “the historical paths of urbanization cannot be avoided: the less developed countries tread the same path as those that came before them, as the main regularities of urbanization continue to exist” (Szirmai V. 2011: 37). However, since the end of the 19th and the beginning of he 20th century “the urbanization processes and their effects have changed radically, among others due to the dynamization of globalization processes” (Szirmai V. 2011: 23).

 Judit Ricz sees the most important urbanization differences in the following elements:

  • different temporal course,
  • different pace,
  • different order of magnitude,
  • different spatial patterns,
  • different global context,
  • quantitative and qualitative differences in urban problems (Ricz J. 2009).

In my opinion, if we sum up the points of view listed above, the following cause-effect link can be sketched: the developed and developing nations are fundamentally characterized by a different historical background. As a result, timing, i.e. the onset of modern urbanization, will be different. Between the two points of onset global context has changed, and this is what causes all further differences (different pace, order of magnitude, spatial pattern, and as a result the differences in urban problems etc.) Thus, the “main regularities in urbanization” themselves (Szirmai V. 2011), the factors that started modern urbanization are the same today as they were at the end of the 18th century.  However, factors influencing urban growth have changed in the meantime, and this causes the differences in urbanization in the two worlds of different development levels.

Different historical background, different timing

The Industrial Revolution created the basis of modern urbanization. This happened first in England, then in the rest of Europe. However, it could not take place in the colonies up to the point these became independent from their colonizers, as the colonies operated largely as suppliers of raw material and markets for ready-made products. The developments only happened in order to increase the efficiency of exploitation. The Industrial Revolution had no foothold in the third world, and as a result modern urbanization could not commence, either, until the third world was emancipated from colonialism.

Thus, while the phase characterized by urban population explosion began in the case of the developed world at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, and had progressed at its rapidest in the first half of the 20th century, the first phase of modern urbanization in developing countries started in the second half of the 20th century and lasts to our days (Ricz J. 2007).

Different global context

During the 150-200 years that lie between the two events – the onset of Industrial Revolution, the independence of the Third World – significant changes occurred in the factors influencing the world’s development. Within this time interval, the last fifty years stand out: there we see several processes with global influence, but their effects are different depending on the development of countries. Two such processes are globalization and the turning point in world economy (Kovács Z. 2002).

The onset of this latter process began with the oil crisis in the 1970s, when heavy industry – earlier regarded as an economic engine and economic, industrial centers experienced hard times as well. Therefore, the roles of the center and periphery shifted, transforming the economy’s earlier spatial structure: production shifted to the periphery, to environments with a cheap workforce, whereas the center’s role now became direction, research and development. Instead of the heavy industry, high-tech industry branches (microelectronics, computer science) and service became the engine of the economy. The value of peripheral spheres appreciated, as due to the decline of the conventional heavy industry, capital and population flowed to the periphery, thus starting developing countries on the path of modern urbanization. In other words, a result of post-Fordian transition is that urbanization’s center of gravity shifted to the developing world, where rapid city growth began, while the urbanization of developed nations slowed.

Diverging characteristics of urbanization

Among the diverging characteristics in the urbanization processes that took place in developing and developed nations, we may mention different timing and different order of magnitude (Ricz J. 2009). In developed countries, the first phase of urbanization, the explosion of cities, happened over a longer period of time and affected fewer people (Ricz J. 2007). The urbanization tendencies in developing countries resemble the values of developed nations at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The divergences appear if one considers absolute numbers.

While today the urban population in the developed world is about 985 million people, and this value is expected to grow to 1.05 billion by 2030, there are already 2.9 billion urban dwellers in the developing world now, and their numbers will surpass 4 billion by 2030 (WUP 2014). The reason is that in countries that were emancipated from colonization, industrialization and urbanization happened simultaneously with population explosion (Kovács Z. 2002). While in Europe and in other regions of the developed world we see that as a result of the Industrial Revolution social shifts took place (demographic explosion, professional restratification), and these led to modified use of space and the onset of modern urbanization, developing nations must face the fact that these processes are not the result of an inner development, causing one another, but occurred as a kind of “heritage” of the colonizers, simultaneously. As a result, the four conditions have emerged that, in the case of the Industrial Revolution, form the basis of modern urbanization (large population concentrations, migration, demographic explosion, technology) (Kovács Z. 2002), but in the absence of economic growth there is no inner potential that would ensure the balanced growth of the settlement network, the proper operation of the emerging mega-metropolises.

In his interview with HuG, Arjun Appadurai – an Indian cultural anthropologist, who researches urbanization among other things – called attention to the fact that in the case of the urbanization crisis, we can speak of a globally universal mechanism, but equally it is important to examine single regions, for local factors may significantly modify the picture.

The solution of the developing world’s urbanization crisis is therefore an enormous challenge, which consists not only of the appropriate economic performance of the states involved, but a political establishment that listens to the poor and takes their interests into consideration when making its decisions.

Author: Ráhel Czirják

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