ONEPLANET Sustainability Review

Sustainability Research, Reviews and Signposting

Urbanisation Part I – Key Issues

Part one of a three part discussion entitled Urbanisation: towards a progress in understanding within the UN Sustainable Development Conference Arena


1 What’s it all about?
Known variously as urban sprawl, city growth, urban expansion or urban development, urbanisation is a prominent and central feature of the sustainable development paradigm.

The significance of a predominantly urban population has created various interpretations. To the hard-core environmentalist, cities represent an anathema; their inhabitants taking, destroying and polluting; very essence of cities hedonistic and anonymous. And they are expanding, practically everywhere. At some point in 2008 the urban population exceeded the rural for the first time. Internationally, much of the population growth is predicted in urbanised areas of Asia and Africa. However, development agencies and academics consider the potential of urban concentrations to play a large and increasing part in solving global social, economic and environmental problems.

Starting with Rio ’92, we will investigate the UN Conference process towards a sustainable future in order to determine any progress made in our understanding of urbanisation issues within the UN Conferences on Sustainable Development arena.

Despite the rhetoric of governments on the international stage, it seems the complex, multi-faceted problems associated with urbanisation are getting worse as the global south population continues to grow and simultaneously emulate the lifestyle and consumption choices of the global north.

2 Key issues
A review of recent literature reveals the nomenclature of urban issues to be varied. There are the physical classifications, such as Cities with defined boundaries, Urbanised Areas with sometimes more fluid boundaries; and phenomena such as Urbanisation and Urban Sprawl, where changes in land use patterns result in settlements with increasing footprints becoming more complex.

Whilst western and northern countries have urbanised in the early-mid 1900s, southern and eastern countries to urbanise rapidly and sometimes uncontrollably, leading to an array of environmental, economic, social and political problems. Yet today’s practitioners, academics and NGOs challenge the notion of urbanisation as a problem and have begun to identify the benefits in such characteristics as density and critical mass.

The causes of or reasons behind urbanisation are manifold and complex. The following is a summarised list to indicate the vast range of considerations:
Industrialisation; Population growth from various sources of in-migration and/or refugees including rural, international, economic, environmental, conflict, disease, etc.; land costs, zoning/planning regulations, land ownership, preservation regulations, build costs, infrastructure availability; job loss or crop failure; a ‘critical mass’ including: employment opportunities with centralised commerce locations, business location/proximity, centralised and accessible governments, improved education opportunities, social networks, transport availability with expanding public and private networks, supply and demand of both products and services such as health services; the draw of hedonistic pleasures and anonymity; and design, including physical, urban and policy design that encourages controlled expansion.

‘Problems’, Benefits
Urbanisation may be seen as a ‘negative,’ yet well-managed urbanisation has since been argued to have significant benefits that some consider far outweigh the drawbacks; the challenge is learning how to harness the inherent possibilities. Understanding various perspectives will help provide a better balance to this argument.

Several challenges spring from concentrating great numbers of people in relatively small areas. Populous urban areas are not without their environmental and social problems, but studies suggest that these aren’t primarily as a result of population concentration. Land use intensity and underutilisation in response to urban population density have an obvious and direct relationship on intra-urban transportation intensity (use, policy, energy, land) for instance – the more urban land used translates into policy needs, increased infrastructure, greater vehicle use and energy consumption.

Peter Newman suggests the problem with urban population increases is not migration, densities, consequences of urbanisation, but from unsustainable consumption and its global impact, and the structure of “how people live in cities” (i.e. lifestyles). Unfortunately, modern consumption and lifestyle trends lack sufficient feedbacks from their distant impacts.

Early concerns in the global north involved wildlife habitat destruction due to industrial expansion, urban expansion and infrastructure construction such as house-building, road-building, transport networks, power stations, etc. Late industrialisation in the global south is now driving large scale urbanisation. Urban development (particularly in tropical regions), increased consumption (particularly meat products that drive agriculture expansion) and globalisation of agricultural commodities drive forest loss and associated environmental problems.

Furthermore, the consequences of urbanisation processes have effects on urban and peri-urban ecology, biodiversity, ecosystems and their services, as well as the distant effects created by pollution, exported wastes and imported goods and products. Yet low-density land use can result in more environmental damage due to their increased footprint and reliance on motor-vehicles, as well as scale inefficiencies resulting from extensive services infrastructure networks and distant social and health services, in effect the inverse of well-managed, dense settlements.

Urban economic growth and urbanisation processes are closely interlinked and self-perpetuating. Businesses locate where opportunities and investment migrate, and people move in search of employment and better services. As lifestyle expectations rise, smallholder agriculture no longer provides the kinds of productive existences people seek, despite government programmes to increase its appeal – agrarian living is challenging and unstable.

As centres of investment, decision-making and economic growth, dense cities concentrate wealth, commercial and public services and infrastructure, which aids national progress, according to the UNPF.

Urban settlements have become concentrations of poverty, inequality and anti-social behaviour of all kinds. Social ills include juvenile delinquency, disconnected communities and social support networks. Malnutrition and disease can result from density and separation from sources of sustenance or income (i.e. subsistence economies reduce), thereby an increased reliance on external assistance.

Stringent or ill-conceived regulations, forced evictions in the name of development, and armed conflict are frequently found in urbanised areas. Urban authorities from LDCs and developing countries are challenged in their capacity and ability to monitor, legislate, maintain and police their ever growing constituencies; these civil servants can be overstretched, under-skilled, or corrupt.

Fundamentally, “cities could indeed be helping to save the planet.” Predicting and managing economic, social, political and environmental change will be essential to the success of urban settlements. Rather than ignoring the issues, capitalising on opportunities created in a creative and proactive matter will help ensure successful outcomes, as ‘cities represent the best hope of escaping poverty.’

For a fully referenced version of the entire three-part story, please click here:
Urbanisation-Towards a progress in understanding_COMBINED

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This entry was posted on 6 January 2013 by in Environmental Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Urbanisation.

Part of the Problem? or Part of the Solution?

Rampant consumerism.
Widespread unsustainable lifestyles.
Unsustainable business practices.
Damaging and unsustainable travel and transport.
Extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
These are some of the problems we face.
Energy crisis.
Financial crisis.
Uneducated and un-empowered.
Environmental damage.
Food and water shortage.
Climate change.
Are you part of the problem,
Or are you part of the solution?

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