Urbanization: An agenda of under-addressed insecurities

By Ruth Canagarajah

With the hype of urbanization, it's often easy to forget that this development is neither inherently positive nor negative; whichever direction it takes depends on the planning and governance underlying it. The following is a summary of major policy and planning issues to keep in mind.

1. City bias and rural neglect

The rural and urban are two sides of the same coin, and in fact relies on an artificial dichotomy that undercuts a continuum. Neglecting this restricts conversations necessary for improving the connectivity between both, such as increasing agricultural innovations and systematically documenting land rights. Since restricting urban-rural migration has been shown to be ineffective in limiting city growth and mobility is a human right, it is far better to have policies that improve both rural and urban development: in rural areas policies should aim towards improving access to land, promoting low-input agriculture, and strengthening the non-farm sector. There are also opportunities for cities to become more self-sufficient in food production through urban agriculture and low-input bio-intensive farming in peri-urban areas. Such developments would further blur the urban-rural differentiation.

2. Mainstreaming disaster risk reduction into urban planning

Sustainable development challenges will become increasingly concentrated in cities, namely lower-middle-income countries, bringing about issues of waste management, greenhouse gas pollution, poor living quality and other issues that call for a re-thinking of interdependent systems. Disasters will likely further aggravate aforementioned environmental and socio-economic inequalities. With the Syrian conflict resulting in pushing refugees to primarily urban centres, namely in Lebanon and Jordan; the Ebola outbreak's impact on Freetown; and Typhoon Haiyan's devastation of Tacloban, cities are facing the impact of different disasters.

The tasks to address are then two-fold: 1) the day-to-day chronic stressors that weaken social fabric (inefficient transportation systems and poor sanitation); and 2) the acute shocks that are sudden (i.e., earthquakes, tsunamis). Three areas will need to be standardized in urban planning given that the growing interdependencies of different systems will yield particularly high costs for human lives, infrastructure, and environmental losses: a) highlighting the role of DRR for increasing risk information for decision-making; b) having a governance framework to address DRR through clear roles and responsibilities; and c) requiring different departments and sectors, as well as the public, to work together in identifying measures in preparedness, recovery and response. It also requires the understanding that as urbanization is a process in flux, pursuing "resiliency" is an unending, proactive process that requires constant re-evaluation and re-defining.

3. Service delivery: Fiscal viability and pro-poor focus

Finally, service provision will especially present questions about prolonged fiscal sustainability depending on growth projections. Urban centres will need to plan how the benefits of city life will be equitably shared, especially through policies that aim to balance the distribution of urban growth. This can prevent excessive centralization of administrative and economic functions, enabling better access to social services and efficient service delivery. Good governance is crucial to for economic and social development and this requires listening to those on the "fringes" by taking note of innovations in slums and including informal settlements into citywide planning documents. Another way to address this is through prioritizing data for policymaking in a way that accounts for the differences of service delivery in specifically urban centers. New metrics, both quantitative and qualitative, first need to be differentiated in qualifying urban, rural and peri-urban environments (i.e. by demanding comparative adjustments) and second need to be attuned to the issues and indicators that the urban-poor view as important to their lives to combine with or develop new indicators in multidimensional composite scores.

Photo credit: Nathalie Capitan.

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