Monday, May 4, 2009

Observations from a UN Report on Urbanization

The following observations are from "An Overview of Urbanization, Internal Migration, Population Distribution and Development in the World," from the UN Population Division. WARNING: Lots of boring statistics ahead!

Noteworthy (to me) observations:

  • Urbanization followed industrialization. Thus rates of industrialization in a region also show the rates of urbanization. (3)
  • Most commerce happens in the cities. 80% of the world's GDP is produced by urban areas. (3)
  • Urbanization resulted from both a push and pull effect. Increased job opportunities have pulled people to the cities. Mechanization of the agricultural industry has reduced the labor market in rural settings. (3)
  • Most R&D happens in the cities. 81% of patents are filed by urban dwellers in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries. (3)
  • Urbanization linked to development- "Countries that have undergone long periods of poor economic performance tend to be the least urbanized." (4) "All the evidence indicates that people benefit from living in urban areas. Average urban incomes are generally higher than those in rural areas. Urban dwellers also have better access to a variety of services, including education, health, transportation, communication, water supply, sanitation and waste management. Because of economies of scale, it is more efficient and cheaper to provide such services to large and geographically concentrated populations than to populations scattered over large rural areas. Furthermore, access to services tends to be better in larger urban agglomerations than in small cities or towns." (4) "Thus, urbanization plays a positive role in overall poverty reduction mostly by contributing to aggregate economic growth." (23)
  • Urbanization's downside- Urban infrastructures are struggling to keep pace with population growth, thus cities suffer from traffic congestion, inadequate sanitation, and over-concentration of industries. "Cities also tend to make demands on land, water and natural resources that are disproportionately high in relation to their land area or their population, whose high average income results in high consumption." (4) The poor tend to suffer the most in the cities, not benefiting from the services of the economically empowered. The urban poor continue to increase. In 2005, 840 million people lived in slums. (4) 37% of the urban population of developing nations. (26)
  • Yet, "in most developing countries, rural populations have worse living conditions and fare worse in terms of health and mortality than slum dwellers." (5)
  • The urbanization rate exceeds the population growth rate. (5)
  • Migrants to the cities generally do better than those that remain in rural areas (5)
  • Development requires urban and rural focus- "strategies to improve the living standards of all must combine policies to promote rural development with those to improve the lot of poor urban dwellers by improving service provision, raising their educational levels, improving transportation, improving access to health services and family planning, strengthening the regulation of land use and facilitating the acquisition of land titles." (5)
  • The world population is projected to be 70% urban by 2050. "At that time, most of the urban population will be concentrated in Asia (54 per cent) and Africa (19 per cent)." (6)
  • "China, India and the United States of America accounted for 35 per cent of the world's urban population." (9)
  • Small cities (under 100,000 residents) are growing rapidly- "48 per cent of the increase in the world urban population was accounted for by the rise in the population of small cities." (14) They have less access to basic services than larger cities. (26)
  • Cities are growing rapidly as a result of the rural-urban migration. (16)
  • "Among the few countries where migration and reclassification account for most of urban growth, two stand out: China and Indonesia." (17) In other words these countries have very high rates of migration from rural to urban.
  • "Urban-origin migrants are more likely to move to urban areas than rural-origin migrants." (18)
  • Urban areas have lower dependency ratios than rural areas, that is the number of dependents for per one hundred adults. "A lower dependency ratio is potentially beneficial because it makes it easier for a society to save and invest. Because urban areas are characterized by lower dependency ratios, they are in a better position to leverage the benefits of economic development." (21)
  • Slum households defined- UN Habitat defines them as "urban households lacking one or more of the following: durable housing; sufficient living area; access to an improved water source; access to improved sanitation, or secure tenure." (26)
  • Cities beyond a certain size decrease in efficiency and productivity. Thus, many nations have urban-urban relocation programs attempting to more evenly distribute the urban population. This is particularly true in nations that have a primate city. Some countries have even created new capitals for this reason. (30)
  • Main point- "Urbanization is a process intrinsically related to development that must be managed in ways that maximize its potential benefits and prevent its negative consequences." (32)
  • Needed- "The development of local databases that reflect local realities and inform policy, planning and investment decisions at the local level is urgently needed." (32)

Critiques of the report:

  • This report nowhere defines what is considered "urban". In a report which focuses on urban migration and compared with rural migration, this is a crucial weakness and makes the statistics less valuable.
  • The often used development markers of $1/day and $2/day only provide a superficial picture of living standards around the world. The two primary flaws are: 1) the dollar, as with all currency, fluctuates. In longevity analysis, a comparison of the number of people making less than a dollar a day does not usually consider the rate of inflation of the time period. Thus, a statistic illustrating less people making less than a dollar than five years ago does not necessarily illustrate the improvement of that population's welfare. 2) differences in buying power in different contexts are significant. Even within a single province of a developing nation prices of basic necessities vary radically depending on the availability of the necessities and the basic infrastructure in transporting the necessities. In many places, $2 a day is enough to live on. But in other places, especially larger cities, it is not. Thus the following statement is rendered a meaningless measure of economic improvement: "Overall, the percentage of poor at under $1 a day in urban areas declined from 14 per cent in 1993 to 13 per cent in 2002…" (23)
  • Discussion of access to basic services is far too simple. Percentages of those with access to electricity is only helpful if those with access have a consistent source of electricity. But when the electricity only runs have the day and is inconsistent when it is on and off, it is more damaging to the economic infrastructure because small business owner dependent on electricity suffer terribly.

United Nations Population Division. "An Overview of Urbanization, Internal Migration, Population Distribution and Development in the World." United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Population Distribution, Urbanization, Internal Migration and Development. January 18, 2008. Accessed May 4, 2009.


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