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Prosperity in a rapidly urbanising world: where do we go from here?

By ucyow3c, on 22 January 2015


Written by Hannah Sender, Research Assistant, UCL Institute for Global Prosperity

Brasilia, Brazil

Credit: Scott Wallace, World Bank.

Is urbanisation even an issue?

It is a widely-known and oft-cited fact that, as of 2007, more than 50% of the world’s population live in urban areas. The factors for this rapid change are hugely debated: are we realising a teleological Modernist project, or do we make decisions regarding where we live based purely on income? It is the case, however, that most of us experience the consequences of this development every day.

In recognition of these problems, the urban ecology is now foremost in academia’s agenda: one of the four UCL Grand Challenges is ‘Sustainable Cities’. The recently launched UCL Institute for Global Prosperity has taken the issue of urbanisation as a primary focus for some of its nascent projects.

As part of the Institute for Global Prosperity’s Soundbites series – a series of short lectures and conversations held at lunchtimes on questions around wellbeing and prosperity – Professor Julio D. Dávila, Director of the UCL Bartlett Development Planning Unit, gave a public talk last Thursday on the possibility for prosperity in rapidly urbanising contexts.

He started by painting a surprisingly positive picture of urbanisation’s consequences for the world’s population. World Bank statistics show us that the correlations between urbanisation and income per person or life-expectancy are positive. They appear to prove that when people move to the city, they seem to have access to more resources, both health-related and economic, which improve their chance of a longer, more prosperous life.

A graph correlating the connection between urbanisation and tax revenues implies a darker side of urbanisation from the almost continuous upward growth of life expectancy rates and income. For as urbanisation increases, tax revenues remain constant. This, Professor Dávila points out, proves that in spite of overall income increasing with developing urbanisation, prosperity is not being distributed throughout the population. “Countries converge in terms of economic growth,” he concludes, “but within countries, economic growth is actually diverging”.

Professor Dávila’s experience of urban locations in Latin America, where he has conducted research for 30 years, confirms this worrying trend. Many of the people who work in the most expensive city in Brazil, Brasília, cannot afford to live in the city itself. Instead, they live on the periphery, in places that bear very little relation to where the candangos spend their working day.

But the periphery or ‘peri-urban’ spaces are also being gentrified, as civil servants and employees of private business become desiring of a foothold outside the city centre. Both the city and its periphery are sites of contrast and contradiction. This is not a revelation, but it is an important indicator of the kind of urban society we have created.

Taking matters into their own hands

The oblique element within this issue is what city councils have been doing to address the inequality that divides their citizens. The taxation system is a consistent means of redressing the economic imbalance of a city, but, perhaps more interestingly, informal settlements’ attempts to improve their own livelihoods with access to technology and infrastructure tell researchers what citizens feel to be important and within their grasp. In one example from Columbia, people living in informal settlements have gained access to television without having to approach policy-makers or lobby business owners. Such attempts are exemplary of the fact that people will develop their own infrastructure when city councils fail to do so.

Learning to live in a city, together

Once the debate had been opened to members of the audience, a diverse set of issues emerged. One attendee raised the central issue of social capital: the collective value of all social networks and the consequent inclinations of doing things for one another. Professor Dávila recognised the need for people to learn to live with each other, post-migration, post-deracination. There are too many examples of people simply not knowing how to live together in a city, or, alternatively, where a city is not built for a diverse community of people.

Working with what we have, how do we work and develop within a city’s structures? One way that this has worked in the past, Professor Dávila pointed out, is to have a charismatic leader, who is able to inspire change among a populace. Without the proper institutions to sustain their voice once this person is gone, everything has the tendency to quickly fall apart.

The answer to sustainable urbanisation ultimately lies within the state. No one else is better placed to use wealth to plant engines of growth and diversify the economy, argues Professor Dávila. How or even whether we cause the state to take on this responsibility is an argument left open to debate.

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