Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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A Mad Rush To The Cities

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday, August 12/07

Zack Gross

Sometime this year or next, the majority of people on our planet will switch from being rural to urban.  A family trying to escape the poverty of rural life, or a young person seeking employment in a city market or factory, or a baby being born in an urban environment will tip the balance. 

This is not a small, slow trend, but rather one that scientists, engineers, sociologists and politicians are bracing for as, by 2030, 60 per cent of Earth’s inhabitants will live in cities.

The United Nations Population Fund recently released a report, Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth, stating that without progressive thinking and effective planning, rapid urban growth will prove disastrous.  For example, the urban African and Asian population increases weekly by one million people.  Rather than try to stem the tide and discourage people from moving to the city, there needs to be a concerted effort, says the UN, to create economic opportunities and solve social problems.

In Canada, the greatest urban growth, by percentage, is happening in secondary cities, especially in Ontario and Alberta.  This will be true of the Global South as well, where many smaller cities will growth to the size of a Winnipeg or Saskatoon.  At the same time, however, the world now has a host of “mega-cities.”  In 1950, when only a third of people lived in urban areas, there were two cities with ten million people or more, New York and Tokyo.  Today, there are at least twenty cities over ten million, with Tokyo at 35 million people!

The UN estimates that every day in our world 180,000 are added to the urban population.  In North America and Europe, 75% of people now live in cities, not only causing a host of urban problems – transportation, environment, crowding, poverty, crime and more – but also leaving some rural regions not viable due to lack of workers, consumers, students and patients.  As population decreases, stores, services and programs cease to function.  In a spiraling crisis, as the infrastructure that serves the population breaks down, what little population is left disappears as well.

It is not economic wealth and opportunity that brings people into cities in many parts of the world.  Currently in Africa, about a third of people live in cities, but this rate is growing at twice the rate of “developed” parts of the world, due to conflict, natural disaster and poverty, so that the majority of Africans could be urbanized – but not necessarily better off – by 2030.  As access to adequately paid employment, water, housing, education and health care are not offered to Africans moving into cities, 70% of Africans living in cities live in slums.

Conditions are not good in Latin American or Asian urban areas either.  While strong Asian economies offer jobs in the manufacturing sector, pay is not high.  As an example, it is estimated that 200,000 formerly rural Chinese workers have set themselves up in slums on the outskirts of Beijing.  In the three major regions of the planet that make up the “Third World”, it is said that one billion people live in slums or illegal squatters’ settlements.  Walden Bello, director of Focus on the Global South, a Thailand-based research and policy institute, says that up to 40% of the populations of Manila, Jakarta, Mexico City and Lagos (Nigeria) live in conditions of squalor, crime and insecurity.

Obviously, then, huge problems in urban growth need to be solved.  Energy use and pollution need green solutions.  Clean fuels will preserve the health of its users and renewable ones will minimize the urban ecological footprint.  Today, health problems from pollution of the environment caused by growth, development and lack of regulations (especially water and air) are major urban Third World challenges.  New forms of mass transportation, cheap enough for all to use, are needed to offset the explosion of badly maintained cars.

Participatory politics is required in the post-modern urban environment.  If political leaders and developers don’t involve the populations around them in the decision-making process, polarization between the powerful and the disenfranchised will cause discontent to grow out of control.  Youth participation is an imperative as the average age of global citizens drops and youth, alienated from their surroundings – without jobs, money or hope – turns to crime and violence. 

Dignified and reasonably compensated employment is a given – without opportunity, our cities will become the backdrop of future horror scenarios.  Cities also need to be developed so that large populations can live in them without crowding and with a continued connection to nature to preserve peoples’ sanity and, therefore, their ability to live with each other in peace.

These issues are not confined to the “developing world.”  In Canada, the shrinking of the agricultural community and the concentration of industry in large cities has paralleled the global trend.  Meanwhile, programs to involve aboriginal, youth and immigrant populations in their own positive development are not always well-funded or thought-through enough to improve difficult situations. 

While Canada is proud of its standing in the Human Development Index, in the top five, we are down the list when it comes to how we deal with the poorer parts of our society.  Our cities face nagging problems of gangs, drugs and crime.  Vancouver’s Downtown East Side is one of the most troubled neighbourhoods on the planet.  As the experts say, we have a little bit of time to act on these issues before they overwhelm us environmentally, socially and economically.  We need to turn danger into opportunity.

Zack Gross is program coordinator at the Manitoba Council for International Cooperation (MCIC), a coalition of 35 international development organizations active in our province.

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