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World Resources 1996-97
(A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United
 Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development
 Programme, and the World Bank)
 (Edited by Dr. Róbinson Rojas)

1. Cities and the Environment


Cities are growing because they provide, on average, greater social and economic benefits than do rural areas. (See Table 1.3.) The higher capital investment caused by urbanization brings health and social benefits that could be achieved in rural areas only at far greater costs. The data are sparse and not always reliable, but access to drinking water, sanitation, health services, and educational opportunities is often dramatically higher in urban areas overall than in rural areas. As a result, life expectancy is usually significantly higher and infant mortality significantly lower in urban areas overall than in rural areas (39) (40). These benefits, however, often do not extend to the poorest groups within a city, as is described below.

Urbanization and Economic Growth

The steady increase in the level of urbanization worldwide since the 1950s also reflects, to a large degree, the enormous changes in the nature and scale of economic activity worldwide. Urban growth is inextricably linked with economic growth, although it is not entirely clear which fuels which. Aggregate and per capita incomes tend to be higher in more urbanized regions of the world (41).

Cities provide a natural locus for economic growth. Commerce and industry concentrate in cities because of the economies of scale they offer. "Cities are extraordinarily efficient," notes one commentator. They "optimize the use of human and mechanical energy, they allow for fast, cheap transportation, they provide flexible, highly productive labor markets. They facilitate a diffusion of products, ideas, and human resources between urban, suburban, exurban, and rural spaces" (42). In a self-perpetuating cycle, commerce and industry in turn attract the ancillary services needed to support them. Such interdependencies give urban areas a clear competitive advantage for industry and commerce; few industries can survive elsewhere (43).

The efficiency inherent in urban areas translates into major gains in productivity. In developing countries, urban areas produce as much as 60 percent of total gross national product with just one third of the population (44). These economies of agglomeration, as they are often called, are especially important when a city's economic base rests on manufacturing. Yet cities have held their allure, even flourished, when the economic base shifts from manufacturing to services such as finance and banking, as it has in much of the developed world. Despite predictions that cities would be rendered obsolete by advances in global telecommunications, for instance, the opposite has happened.

Indeed, many scholars argue that such economic changes are giving rise to a new class of "world cities" that are the nerve centers of an increasingly global economy (45). And it is not just New York, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, or other powerhouses of the developed world that dominate this global scene. Cities as diverse as Berlin, Sao Paulo, Beijing, Bangkok, Mexico City, and Budapest, Hungary, are emerging as world powers in their own right. Transformed into "transnational spaces for economic activity" (46), these world cities have more in common with each other than with cities within their regions or nations.

While these trends can bring enormous prosperity to certain locales, they also increase social and economic inequities. Globalism's sweep is far from uniform. As Barcelona, Spain, and Singapore flourish, other cities, especially old industrial or port cities such as Detroit and Liverpool, United Kingdom, are left further and further behind. Disparities also increase among cities in the same country. Sao Paulo, for instance, has emerged as a major business and financial center at the expense of Rio de Janeiro, once the most important city in Brazil (47). Within cities as well, globalism exacerbates inequalities, as the disparities widen among the incomes of high- and low-wage workers.

The environmental implications of these economic changes are significant. As cities compete with one another to attract manufacturing and other services, the bargaining chips are sometimes cheap labor and lax environmental concerns. Thus, globalization may well lead to greater environmental deterioration and aggravate existing inequities of income and access to basic services (48).

Migration and Natural Population Increase

In addition to economic activity, major demographic forces underlie urban growth. In the earlier waves of industrialization, rapid urban growth was largely fueled by rural-to-urban migration. In the developing world today, however, the natural increase of the urban population is at least as important as migration (49). The high rate of natural increase in these cities, however, does tend to follow migration, because most migrants are of reproductive age. Another contributor to urban growth is the reclassification of city boundaries, which can result in dramatic changes in urban size (50).

The importance of migration varies considerably by region, and migration flows in all directions, not just rural to urban. In some countries, rural-to-rural flows may be of a larger scale than rural to urban (51). What is often overlooked is the role of migration in the growth of cities in the developed world, where fertility rates are relatively low. In the United States, much of urban change now under way stems from the movement of people from one city to another (52).

Figures on rural-to-urban migration are notoriously difficult to pin down, but it is believed to account for between 40 and 60 percent of annual urban population growth in the developing world (53). Migration is expected to be a major factor in the coming years in regions with large rural populations, especially those where rural poverty is rampant, as in Africa and parts of Asia.

Despite the dual role of natural increase and migration, many countries still tend to view urban growth as a "problem" of migration alone. Concerned about burgeoning populations, a number of governments in both the developed and the developing world have adopted policies to restrict the flow of migrants to cities. Few policies, however, have met with success.

Throughout the developing world, the factors driving rural-to-urban migration are complex. Migrants are not only pulled toward cities by the prospect of jobs and higher incomes, they are also pushed out of rural areas by such factors as poverty, lack of land, declining agricultural work, war, and famine. The favelas (squatter settlements) of Rio cannot be understood without reference to the latifundia land system in rural Brazil, which is characterized by large landholdings concentrated in the hands of a few. In many instances, the decision to move to an urban area is part of a complex household survival strategy, in which families minimize risk by placing members in different labor markets (54). Nor is migration always permanent; many migrants circulate between urban areas and their rural home (55). Considerable diversity also exists among migrants themselves, for instance, in their age and education (56).

Various studies suggest that the vast majority of migrants feel that relocation to the city has improved their situation, even if not as much as they might have hoped (57). In New Delhi, India, a survey of poor migrants from rural areas found that their incomes were 2.5 times greater than they had been in the village, primarily because they could find about twice as many days of work in the city (58).

Other migrants, however, are unable to find work or are forced to take ill-paying or hazardous jobs. Unable to generate enough income to meet their basic needs for food and shelter, they join the ranks of the urban poor.

Employment Opportunities

Unemployment is a significant problem in most cities in developing countries, because the formal economies of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are unable to absorb the enormous influx of workers. Given the urbanization rates these cities are now experiencing, the demand for new jobs will be intense: Starting in 1990, it is estimated that an additional 35 million jobs per year will be required to provide employment to all new labor force participants (59).

As a result, a substantial number of the developing world's urban poor make their living through subsistence activities or informal jobs--namely, production and exchange outside of the formal market. These jobs run the gamut from providing services such as garbage collection and domestic help, to providing goods such as food and building materials in small stores, to small-scale clothing manufacturing. Informal jobs make up an estimated 75 percent of urban employment in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and between 30 and 50 percent in Latin America (60) (61).

Debate on the role of the so-called informal sector in national economies is rampant (62) (63). Until recently, informal jobs have been viewed as disconnected from the "real" economy of a city, yet evidence suggests that informal jobs are well integrated and contribute directly to the urban economy as a whole (64). In addition, seemingly informal jobs often have direct ties to a city's formal enterprises. For instance, scavengers in Hanoi, Viet Nam, obtain and clean chicken bones that end up in pharmacies in Italy as high-priced calcium supplements (65).

With some exceptions, however, informal jobs tend to pay less well than formal ones and offer little security or benefits. In Latin America, incomes from informal jobs were on average at least 40 percent below those earned in formal employment; in the 13 countries studied, the average income received by those employed in informal jobs was well below official poverty lines (66).

References and Notes

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