Cities in transition: Demographics and the development of cities

Type Conference Paper - United Nations expert group meeting on population distribution, urbanization, internal migration and development
Title Cities in transition: Demographics and the development of cities
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2008
It took the development community two decades, if not more, to come to terms with high urbanization and the unprecedented urban growth rates, in the developing world. The dramatic increase in the share of urban population from 17 to 26, during 1950-1975 (Preston, 1979) was the first sign of a new order in the third world: a predominantly urban one. Yet, surprisingly, the initial response to this revolutionary trend was indifference or denial (Chamie, 2004). The world reacted to this, like they did, to the early warnings given by scientists on climate change, or on the HIV/AIDS epidemic, skepticism.
When urbanization was taken seriously, two opposite opinions emerged. While one line of thought placed emphasis on the positive, the other, on the negative features of urbanization. Proponents of economic growth were quick to realise the benefits of urbanization in terms of the dividends it brings to development, by offering the economies of scale, big concentrations of production, consumption and specialized services (UNCHS, 1996).
But a majority in the milieu of overseas development assistance, bilateral or multilateral, as well as the national and local stakeholders, saw the ill-effects, not the opportunities, of urbanization on development. By many, the cities of the developing world, with huge population concentrations, traffic jams, air pollution, crime, overcrowding, chaos, and slums, were perceived as hubs of ultimate human and physical decadence, an image very far from their utopia. Most importantly, high urbanization was seen as a threat to national integrity (Vining Jr. 1985, :496), as a majority, 70 per cent, of national and local leaders thought urbanization was a big development problem, rather than opportunity (UN-Habitat, 2006).
Another important reason why big cities received bad publicity stems from the ecological footprint they leave in and around their settlements. Cities were, still are, seen to:
“exert enormous environmental impacts, far beyond their boundaries, and face challenges in several areas.” (Desai, 1996: 233).
More recently, the annual and quintessential reports of the United Nations Secretary General on the Millennium Development Goals, typically imply that urbanization jeopardizes biodiversity and exacerbates deforestation (UN, 2003).
Notwithstanding the various motives behind the reaction to high urbanization, the solution proposed was surprisingly uniform: to curb urbanization, either by force, slum evictions, (UN-HABITAT, 2005), or by indirect policies, aimed at encouraging the rural population to stay in their villages by pumping development funds to agriculture and other rural progammes. (Sachs, 2005).
Urbanists of the world to argued, with a collective voice that the problems created by population pressure could be dealt with, with good governance. They agree that, the problems and opportunities of city life are not simply the product of the city size, or growth, but of municipal capacity and commitment, as well as the policies of the central governments, to tackle urban poverty, unemployment, and improve the quality of life (Cheema, 1992; NRC , 2003: Gilbert, 1996; Rakodi, 1997) .
One decade later, these arguments were carried to the global public, by two recent flagship reports of the United Nations, State of the World’s Cities Report, 2006 (UN-Habitat, 2006) and the State of the World’s Population Report 2007 (UNFPA, 2007), both sending this message: urbanization as a given, therefore, instead of trying to curb it, the world leaders should spend their energy in developing solutions around it.
In order to explore into the solutions to problems emerging from high urban growth and the magnitude of urbanization the demographic transition process in cities and components of growth merit a closer look.

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