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Challenges of Urbanization

How is rapid urbanization affecting cities across the globe?

January 18, 2010

How is rapid urbanization affecting cities across the globe?

The basic health and well-being of the inhabitants of the world’s cities is being robbed as a result of unregulated environmental pollution, shrinking green areas, inadequate housing, overburdened public services, a mushrooming of makeshift settlements on the outskirts lacking in both infrastructure and services, mounting anomie — and the sheer numbers of neighbors who do not know neighbors.

Beijing, a city of over 17 million inhabitants, exemplifies this social alienation. Until the early 1980s, the Chinese capital was constructed as a multitude of siheyuans, or one-story complexes built around a common courtyard that were inhabited by three or four families who shared a single kitchen and water spigot.

These courtyards were connected by narrow streets called hutongs that formed a grid from north to south and east to west.

This open structure greatly facilitated contact between neighbors, encouraged the sharing of resources, fostered relations between contiguous families and enabled the elderly to care for children and share with them their passion for songbirds. Because of these characteristics, these almost idyllic structures were described as “collections of small rural villages.”

Until the mid-1980s, only a few skyscrapers disrupted the harmony of the landscape. Today, that panorama has the look and feel of the ultimate modern city, where, with few exceptions, these “small rural villages” have been supplanted by sterile, towering skyscrapers. This striking change is not limited to external structures. It has dramatically altered the fabric of human relations as well.

Physical isolation has led to an increase in crime, destroyed the local sense of solidarity and contributed to the fragmentation of what were once cohesive family groups.

As the distance between home and the workplace has also increased considerably, workers now find themselves devoting what was once valuable family time to exhausting commutes in overcrowded buses or subways.

According to Chen Xitong, a former mayor of Beijing, “The capital is growing increasingly ugly, and it is steadily losing its Chinese character. Most of the modern high-rise buildings, with their boring concrete facades, look like dominoes set down in the landscape without plan and without imagination.”

The urbanization process in Colombia — unlike that characteristic of most other Latin American countries — was stimulated, and to some extent defined, by episodes of violence, which occurred principally in rural areas. Since the 1930s, violence has been an inescapable fact of Colombian civilian life.

Between 1948 and 1957, an undeclared civil war known as "La Violencia" took root in the country. Over 250,000 political homicides were committed during this time, a result of the long-standing rivalries between supporters of the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. These events set the stage for the extremely violent nature of today's society, which claims the young among its chief victims.

As landless peasant families were uprooted and displaced by successive waves of violence, they fled en masse to the country's main cities, where the majority among them now reside in poverty-stricken marginal areas.

As a result of the violence, either witnessed or experienced first-hand, many of Colombia's young generation have internalized the culture of aggression into which they were born.

Colombia’s case is certainly not unique. More recently, the rural poor in many other countries throughout the world have been uprooted by violence and forced to flee toward the large urban centers.

Food insecurity and lack of basic services in the rural areas encourage people's migration into the cities, where they all too often end up living in marginal areas.

These marginal areas — known as bidonvilles in French-speaking West Africa, ishish in some Arab countries, kampungs in Indonesia, villas miseria in Argentina, favelas in Brazil, pueblos jóvenes in Peru and ranchitos in Venezuela — may contain from 30-60% of the population of many Third World cities, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

Many governments attempt to discourage migration from rural areas to the cities, but these measures are by and large unsuccessful. Since large cities enjoy preferential treatment in terms of infrastructure and industrial development, they serve as magnets for the “have-nots.”

Regardless of the big city’s allure, many observers now feel that conditions for the ever-growing numbers of urban poor are most likely worse than for their rural counterparts.

While it is true that the more obvious ill-effects of urban life — emotional stress, loss of family structure, congested traffic, noise, environmental pollution — affect people from all income levels, many city dwellers may also take for granted access to basic public services, such as drinking water supply, housing, solid waste disposal, transportation and health care.

For the poor, however, these are either deficient or nonexistent. Instead, following classic “more is less” thinking, those in poverty zones usually receive an extra dose of environmental pollution, since industries tend to cluster in outlying areas where regulations are more lax.

In Mexico City, a city notorious for its air pollution, children are exposed to millions of tons of contaminants. Yet, Mexico City’s pollution problem is hardly unique. Virtually every major city in the Western Hemisphere is fighting the same battle.

Residents of Santiago, Chile, are afflicted with a host of chronic respiratory infections caused by large concentrations of particulate pollutants in the atmosphere, whose persistence is, in turn, facilitated by the area’s unique topographical and climactic circumstances.

Buenos Aires is not exempt from this problem either, and its toxic gas and noise pollution levels make the Argentine capital one of the most polluted cities in the world.

The crowded neighborhoods of cities combined with poor sanitary conditions and inadequate waste removal create conditions favorable to the spread of infectious diseases. In Delhi, 52% of the people live in slums without basic services.

How to improve the quality of urban life? Cities can — and should — learn from the experiences of other cities with similar characteristics. This effort requires not only the participation of urban planners, but public health and environmental experts, politicians and fundamentally, the communities themselves.

Only when these actions are carried out will it be possible, perhaps, to reach that almost ideal situation heralded by Hippocrates some 2,600 years ago: a balance between the human organism and its environment.


Regardless of the big city's allure, conditions for the world's urban poor are most likely worse than for their rural counterparts.

The urbanization process in Colombia was stimulated — and to some extent defined — by episodes of violence.

According to Chen Xitong, a former mayor of Beijing, "The capital is growing increasingly ugly, and it is steadily losing its Chinese character."

Distance between home and the workplace has increased considerably, physical isolation has led to an increase in crime and destroyed the local sense of solidarity.

Cities can — and should — learn from the experiences of other cities with similar characteristics.