Cities as magnets of hope
Today is World Habitat Day:
URBANIZATION: The World Habitat Day is celebrated worldwide on the
first Monday in the month of October each year.
The main objective of the deliberations is to highlight a particular
aspect impacting the state of human settlements and to focus on the need
to recognise adequate shelter as a fundamental right for all.
Urbanization making rapid inroads
The theme chosen by United Nations for deliberations in the current
year is 'Cities, magnets of hope'. It is observed that the United
Nations has chosen the theme as a reminder that the world is witnessing
the greatest trends, ever, in migration of people to towns and cities.
Urbanisation and its impact currently is therefore of critical
significance to both developed and developing countries.
It would be pertinent to examine some thoughts on the phenomenon of
urbanisation in retrospect, perhaps to get an insight in terms of
historical facts and lessons of experience.
The process of urbanisation which commenced with the industrial
revolution in Britain led to the creation of urban settlements
throughout the developed world. These urban settlements or cities were
described by Max Weber (1958) as 'tightly' knit, well individualised
The growth of cities of urban agglomerations proceeded so rapidly
needing a new vocabulary to describe and deal with it. Patrick Geddes
coined the term conurbations to describe urban agglomerations in
The term 'metropolitan area' stemming from the Greek 'metropolis'
(meaning the mother city that spawns other cities) came into general
international usage subsequently.
Some scholars in the 1950s, however, felt that the concept of the
city as described by Weber has become a phenomenon of the past.
Martindale in fact questioned whether the city was not dissolved in a
new system, much wider geographically, where the new community framework
would embrace the nation as a whole in the future.
These views, however, remained less significant until about the 1970
s where the central problem concerning cities in the developed world was
of trying to find out how best to manage urbanisation.
The world trend towards urbanisation i.e. the concentration of people
in urbanised regions, seems to have been fully accepted. Since then,
however, it has often been questioned whether cities were a permanent or
a passing phenomenon.
The mid 1970s witnessed a counter -urbanisation debate based on some
statistical indices which were considered to be complex and debatable.
These indices purported to indicate a settlement scattered and dissolved
in the country side.
This model attempted to depict a trend basically described as the
dissolution of the city and its apparent replacement by what was assumed
to be a dispersed habitat. These views were nevertheless short lived.
In the 1980s there emerged a new concept of urban renaissance which
connotes a rebirth of the city. This clearly contradicted the prospect
of a decline of the city but did not necessarily mean that the suburban
dispersal has come to an end.
It was argued that urban renaissance could mean an exercise in
planning, repair and maintenance. It could perhaps be an effort to
conserve the cityscape. Such propositions however, were in contrast to
what generally has been witnessed in the past decades in most cities.
The reality is that there has been indiscriminate large scale
demolition of all buildings block by block in what has been described as
a 'massive surgical renewal' to build in new style for new uses.
More significantly some basic changes in the functions of cities over
the years are discernible. The industrial revolution filled cities and
towns with manufacturing plants and workers.
These manufacturing plants and the workers presently are being moved
out from compact and congested cities and out of old buildings
unsuitable to modern equipment and activities.
Many of the blue collar occupations, it is observed are gradually
becoming redundant due to automation. Additionally the pressure of
population growth, in migration and rising economic standards inevitably
lead to a general spatial extension and the flow into the country side
of urban land uses.
This spatial extension has been facilitated by the improvement of
road and rail transportation networks. The result has been a growing
separation between the places where people work and transact business,
which is still linked to the central cities, and the places where people
live i.e. sleep and relax which sprawl around the country side.
It would seem therefore, that the basic changes in the functions of
cities inter-alia have been accompanied by significant increases in
their functional magnitude. The rise of skylines is a manifestation of
cities as distinct entities effecting changes in the urban way of life.
The next phase in this evolutionary process is the emergence of the
'transactional city' (Corey-1983) based on what is described as
transactional forces where employment is shifting from labour force
dominated by workers who produce and handle tangible goods to a labour
force with a majority of its members engaged in the generation,
processing and management of such intangibles as information, knowledge
It would be observed that there is a transformation of economies and
societies revolving around hardware to one concerned increasingly with
Similar trends observed in the developed world comprise the increased
competition among cities in an international division of labour
described as globalisation and a shift towards an information mode of
production where information becomes the basic input resulting in a new
division of labour not by product but by process ( Peter Hall - 1991) To
a considerable extent economic activity over the last couple of decades
has shifted from production places to centres of finance and highly
This rather sketchy account of the evolutionary process of cities in
the developed world may not be totally relevant to developing countries.
For instance the concept of spread effects of economic investments
where investments in a region generated economic growth not only in that
region but also in neighbouring regions, which was true of developed
countries failed to materialise in the developing countries.
However, given the complexities of the world economy some of the past
economic remedies may not succeed even in the developed world.
Despite such reservations what appears to matter is that rapid
urbanisation is taking place in most developing countries although for
quite different reasons. Initially people were attracted to cities
because of the availability of industrial jobs consequent to the
industrial revolution in Britain.
The current exodus however, from rural areas to cities in the
developing world is not because there are adequate jobs on offer but
because the prospect of getting employment in the rural areas is almost
While there is absolutely no hope in getting employment in the rural
areas in most developing countries the driving force of migrants to
cities is the hope of getting some employment some day in the city.
Cities in the developing world have therefore, been appropriately
described as 'magnets of hope'.
In terms of the present trends the world will become predominantly
urban within the next decade. The developing countries may follow suit
probably in a couple of decades.
United Nations statistics suggest that two thirds of the population
in the world will live in cities by the year 2050. It is inevitable that
urbanization in the developing world will also be accompanied by urban
sprawl, with the attendant evils of poor and in sanitary housing,
unemployment, disease and environmental degradation.
Urbanisation in developing countries is also likely to create 'dual
cities', wherein a formal city with all the modern features and
characteristics will lie along side what may be described as an
'informal city' with poor infrastructure, housing and other facilities
beset with severe environmental problems.
There will, however be innumerable economic linkages between the
formal and informal city which will constantly influence each other and
bind them economically and socially and will enhance the dependant
relationship among them.
The city of Nairobi in Kenya provides an example of a dual city
fitting to the above description. While the formal city gives a visitor
the impression that he sees things no different to what he would
probably see in Oxford Street in London, the informal city depicts all
the evils of poverty and underdevelopment.
Nevertheless there is intense economic activity of an informal
character taking place in the latter providing employment and shelter
for quite a substantial population, perhaps to a much larger labour
force than what the formal city could provide for.
The demonstration effect depicted in the concept of consumer
behaviour in economics seems to be catching up in cities in the
developing world in their modernisation efforts. This is characterised
in the sphere of property development and urban land uses.
A case in point is the emergence of luxury apartments replacing old
office and factory buildings in Central London reversing the prevailing
preferences of the rich for suburban living.
Curiously though, a similar development process is taking place in
Colombo where luxury apartments are coming up in prime locations of the
city replacing other urban land uses. While there are innumerable
dissimilarities in the state of cities in the developed and the
developing world there could also be instances of striking similarities
as shown above.
Given the impact of globalisation, informationalization and
internationalisation it is unrealistic to assume that cities in the
developed and developing worlds will tread along different paths in
watertight compartments. It is most likely that the latter will catch up
with the former in at least some respects.
However, it has to be recognised that each country has a specific
development process with a specific socio - economic, political and
juridical system which will be reflected in the state of its cities.
There are no universal standard remedies for city problems.
The once successful Keynesian economic remedies have proved to be
utterly ineffective in tackling modern day economic problems even in the
developed world let alone the developing countries. The failure of macro
- economic growth strategies is reflected more severely at the city
This is primarily because macro - economic growth strategies are not
spatially related. The traditional sectoral approach used by economists
considers space as a constant in their growth equation
As the world becomes increasingly urban it is essential that policy
makers take adequate note of the spatial dimension and use the city as a
catalyst for economic growth and national development.
It is easier and more economical to provide amenities, facilities,
utilities and services to a concentrated population rather than a
scattered population country wide. Cities ideally should be able to
provide inclusive living conditions for their citizens. The poor is an
essential component of the city.
They have an important role to play in the upkeep of the city.
Besides every one irrespective of whatever differences has a right to
the city and a conducive living environment.
The provision of such an environment entailing safety and security,
safe drinking water, sewerage systems, electricity, transport, solid
waste disposal, houses, schools, playgrounds and a strong economic base
that could provide adequate employment inter- alia would be the greatest
challenges to be met.
(The writer is the former Head/ Department of Town and Country
Planning, University of Moratuwa, Director of Post Graduate Studies and
Senior Professor of Town Planning)