Super-cities threaten to swallow humanity

Developing world hosts explosive urban growth
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The Independent Online
The entire globe is following the 19th century European and American example and pouring into cities, with implications that could be either benign or calamitous.

Within 10 years the majority of the people of the world will be living in urban conglomerations, the United Nations reported yesterday. Almost all the urban growth will come in the developing world, which is spawning large cities at the rate of 10 a year.

In 1950 the world had 83 cities with populations of 1,000,000 or more (about the size of Birmingham or Glasgow). Today there are 280. By 2015 there will be more than 500.

By the year 2015, 12 of the world's 15 largest cities will be in Asia; only one - New York - will be in North America; none will be in Europe.

In 1950, only one city - New York - had a population of more than 10 million. Now there are 14, of which only four are in the developed world. Early in the next century, only one European city - greater Paris - will be in the world's top 30. Lagos will be the third largest city in the world.

From Ancient Rome to 19th century New York or Manchester, cities have always been ambiguous institutions. They have been sinks of crime, depravity, oppression, poverty and suffering. But they have also been crucibles of personal enrichment, civilisation, culture and political rights. The UN says the vast urbanisation in progress has, similarly, a potential for immense social progress and economic advance and a capacity for disaster and human degradation on an unimaginable scale.

The UN report on the State of World Population was published to coincide with the opening of the Habitat II conference in Istanbul today. Representatives from the world's nations will be asked to act on the report's findings and steer development programmes towards urban education and health projects, especially for women, to improve the upward mobility of shanty-town dwellers. The UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, will also call for efforts to control the "inevitable" march of the city. The UN is pushing for the development of a large number of manageable, medium-sized cities rather than a few, uncontrollable super-cities.

Another UN agency, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) - is calling for redoubled efforts by wealthy countries and poor countries alike to create jobs for the urban poor. Otherwise, it warns, the armies of city dwellers living in poverty will exceed 1 billion by the end of the century.

"By 2000, one half of humanity will be living and working in cities, with developing countries accounting for the major share of the world's new urban population," said ILO deputy director, Katherine Hagen. "These people will need jobs if the new cities are to develop as centres of economic opportunity and civilisation rather than zones of inequality and misery."

The main report, by the UN Population Fund, stresses the potential benefits, as well as the menaces, presented by the urban explosion.

"The urban future carries many risks for the physical environment and natural resources, for social cohesion and for individual rights but it also offers vast opportunities. The experience of large cities as concentrations of human creativity and the highest forms of social organisation suggests that the future will open new avenues for human development."

"Cities provide capital, labour and markets for entrepreneurs and innovators at all levels of economic activity. Cities already account for 60 to 80 per cent of the gross national product of many developing countries."

Three factors explain the rapid growth of city populations, the report says. There is the migration into town of impoverished country-dwellers. There is a colonisation of outlying villages by urban conglomerations. But the largest factor is the population explosion among slum-dwelling citizens themselves. Despite the appallingly unhealthy conditions endured by people in the slums of places such as Lagos and Kinshasa, the urban birth rate invariably outpaces the death rate.

The report does point to hopeful signs in some Third World cities. One example is Bombay where progress has been made in replacing squatter homes with new dwellings.

At the other end of the scale, there are - especially in Africa - almost wholly dysfunctional cities, which have become nightmarish agglomerations of insanitary homes, ruined roads, abandoned services and crime.

"Increasing urbanisation has the potential for improving human life or increasing human misery," the report says, "Cities can ... promote health or cause disease; empower people to realise their needs and desires or impose on them a simple struggle for basic survival. Which of these represents the urban future is a matter for us to decide."