On October 8th, to commemorate World Habitat Day, experts from the International Housing Coalition (IHC), Foreign Policy magazine and New America Foundation's Global Assets Project came together to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing an increasingly urban world. Urbanization has rapidly become a defining characteristic of the 21st century, but it is still debated whether urbanization is shaping the world for the better or for the worse.
More than half of the world’s population calls cities their home, and the pace of urbanization is only hastening. By 2030, the McKinsey Global Institute projects that there will be over 200 cities in China with populations over 1 million (to put this into prospective, the United States currently has only 10 cities). And China is not necessarily the outlier; rapid urbanization is prevalent in other parts of Asia and also quickly taking place in Africa and Latin America. Kenya’s annual rate of urbanization is 4%, Guatemala’s is 3.4%, and Indonesia’s is 3.3% -- all beating out that of China.
Historically, urbanization policies have tried to resist urban migration, rejecting claims of an ever urbanizing world; however, urbanization is unavoidable and inexorable. Although urbanization presents challenges -- the growing pains of rapid city growth can be seen all over the world in impoverished slums, where inhabitants often lack access to basic services, property rights or formal markets -- it also provides clear opportunities. According to Urbanization and Growth, a recent book published by the Commission on Growth and Development, “urbanization and growth go together: no country has ever reached middle-income status without a significant population shift into cities.”
In order for urbanization to be considered not just a characteristic of the 21st century but a positive one, two main steps were outlined during the World Habitat Day discussion in Washington, DC. First and foremost, the dynamics of urbanization need to be accepted. Raising awareness among political leadership through accurate and evidence-based information will push governments to begin to formalize the informal sectors that they have often overlooked. Second, there needs to be long-term and flexible planning by local and national governments to make urbanization sustainable. This means policies and budgeting efforts that take into context each growing city. To ensure that low-income and excluded populations are included in and benefit from these efforts, citizen engagement is crucial. Budgeting efforts, infrastructure development, and program design need to be in touch with the community leaders, slum dwellers, and impoverished resident who everyday face the challenges of an urbanizing world.
A number of successful slum upgrading approaches have come to light. For example, over the past six years, the government of Morocco has implemented a nationwide program called City without Slums (CWS), which has worked to eliminate and transform slum housing in 85 cities across the country. The program has improved or eliminated almost half (45.8%) of the country’s slums, which were home to 1.6 million people. The CWS Program uses a wide range of strategies to combat the challenges of urbanization including: the provision of new subsidized housing sites on public land, the creation of tax incentives for builders to create low cost apartment, and the upgrading and demolition (with replacement) of poor quality housing. Based on the program’s success, similar initiatives are being replicated in Egypt and Tunisia.
Halfway around the world, World Habitat Day was also being celebrated, suitably, at the 2010 Shanghai Exposition. At the ceremony in China, the 2010 Habitat Scroll of Honor Winners were announced, highlighting praiseworthy urban renewal and slum reduction efforts in Austria, China, Colombia, Morocco, Singapore, and South Africa. However, the day of celebration should have also been a time of reflection. Bigger cities do not necessarily mean a better life, but better cities, those that are listening, planning and adapting to their growing amount of residents, will.