How urbanisation became the ‘disease’ of global cities

As urbanisation increases, cities around the world are becoming congested and overcrowded. Against a backdrop of Brexit and increasing global volatility, is there a case for anti-urbanisation?

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh city at night. Could providing employment, basic services, health facilities, adequate shelter and access to the global community outside of cities stall the rapid pace of urbanisation? Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As urbanisation increases, cities around the world are becoming congested and overcrowded. Inhabitants are fed up with hours in traffic and paying extortionate rates for accommodation.

Against a backdrop of Brexit and increasing global volatility, are we starting to see a case for anti-urbanisation? 

Globally, more people live in urban than in rural areas and, by 2050, the United Nations predicts that 66 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. Are we making a mistake by accepting these statistics as inevitable? Is a blind headlong rush into urbanisation the best course of action? 

Recent thinking confirms that the division between those who have captured the majority of the benefits from global integration and those who haven’t runs between major cities and smaller communities. The Brexit vote confirmed this growing disillusionment – the sector with the highest ‘leave’ vote experienced stagnating median household incomes for nearly two decades.

This is particularly pertinent in the developing world where population growth is highest due to, among other reasons, high birth rates from younger populations. Is this headlong rush into cities a quick way to create slums?

Or is there another way and, if there is, is there something that developing nations could teach city planners (and satellite city planners) in the developed world? 

Africa is an example. As people across the globe move from rural to urban areas in search of a better quality of life that provides employment, basic services, health facilities, adequate shelter and access to the global community, Africa has started to ask: what if we could provide all of this to people right where they are?

Would citizens still want to move to congested, overcrowded urban centres if they were offered a better quality of life in their own environment? And could this contribute to a much-needed slowing down of urbanisation, turning urbanisation growth on its head?

The rapid population growth in emerging countries and the potential for slums and degradation has to be an alarm call for a different model to be considered

The notion of Rural Development Districts aims to establish development hubs that will be the missing nodes that make up a truly prosperous circuit for citizens across the country to plug into.

Scattered throughout the country, Rural Development Districts will be deliberately located in areas which were traditionally disconnected from major economic hubs. Initially driven by agriculture, they will later house a broader range of other industries, provide residents with access to modern amenities and ultimately a better quality of life.

Unlike most rural areas, they will be fully online, making use of WiMax technology  an existing wireless broadband technology similar to WiFi, but offering greater speeds for more users over a wide area  to address the ‘last mile’ problem and provide continuous connectivity. 

Their schools and training centres will grant teachers and scholars access to the world’s brightest minds, while entrepreneurial centres will encourage residents to tap into the power of the cloud and develop African apps and online businesses that have access to global markets.

The Rural Development Districts also have the potential to provide perfect testing grounds for emerging technologies including 3D printing and advanced micro manufacturing. High-tech components, produced for global export, could be produced in these locations which would have a significant impact on job creation outside of traditional industrial zones, potentially disrupting the traditional industrial parks.

Goods and people that need to move to urban centres could be transported via a national network of hyper-loops that would connect rural liveable areas to the global market.

While the science of forecasting is uncertain, it seems very likely that some of the chronic stresses our cities face are set to get worse as urbanisation increases – including climate change, overcrowding and related social problems.

Coupled with this, cities compete on a global scale. They attract populations and investment which continue to support rapid densification. Investing in improving an already-strained city infrastructure isn’t enough.

When it comes to our cities, blind acceptance of the inevitable must not be the case. The rapid population growth in emerging countries and the potential for slums and degradation has to be an alarm call for a different model to be considered

It is not too late to shape the next wave of urbanisation. In fact, based on growing political undercurrents, this is something that all authorities need to embrace.

Economic ecosystems needn’t always be centralised within a city. They can be decentralised, but connected via technology and infrastructure. If the basic ingredients of access to jobs, amenities and lifestyle can be provided outside of our cities, then perhaps a solution to the negative effects of urbanisation is right at our fingertips.

When we put human capital, and people’s well-being, future careers and prosperity, at the pinnacle of the priority pyramid, we may just succeed in writing a new narrative around the next form of globalisation.

Abbas Jamie is Aurecon’s director for innovation and transformation in Africa. This post was republished from Aurecon’s Just Imagine blog with permission.

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