New Internationalist

Simply… The Urban Dilemma

Issue 178

new internationalist
issue 178 - December 1987

[image, unknown] the urban dilemma


Most Third World cities have developed along Western lines.
Planners and officials in Bangkok, Singapore, Lusaka and Mexico
City found their inspiration in the streets of London, Paris and
New York. But such uncritical acceptance of Western ideas of
urban development has brought its own problems.

HOUSING CHAOS

For the poor in search of their dreams the reality of city life can be jolting. Living conditions are often worse in urban slums than in the countryside. Governments have given the green light to city growth without thinking about where people will live. As a result shantytowns have popped up around every Third World city. Houses are crammed together in a chaotic jumble - built of whatever scraps can be bought or scavenged. The private sector has little interest in building houses for the poor since there's no profit in it. So the poor build their own - on unwanted or idle land. Police evict squatters one day only to have them reappear elsewhere the next. There are no real streets so garbage is uncollected; other services like sewers, piped water and electricity are usually non-existent. Still, shantytowns are here to stay - and some governments now grudgingly accept the fact. More aid dollars are being directed to slum upgrading projects and there is a growing awareness of the need to help plan and finance self-help housing efforts.

 

NOT ENOUGH WORK

A paid job is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for newcomers to the city. Because there is more private money, more government investment and a more concentrated market, there are more jobs on offer in the city. But only a few end up winning the job lottery; the majority scrounge a living where they can. Third World governments put their faith in capital-intensive industrial development which relies on job-replacing technology to raise productivity. Exports may increase and gross national product rise but the new wealth doesn't trickle down to the poor. Only a small number of workers end up benefiting and a two-tiered labour market emerges. At the top are a few well-off industrial workers whose relative success reinforces the 'pot of gold' myth and primes the rural exodus. Below them is the economy of the majority - the poorly paid, the underemployed and the illegally employed.

 

POLLUTION

In an effort to attract industries and the jobs they bring, developing countries roll out the red carpet - and throw caution to the winds. The results are as obvious as a slap in the face. The stench of sulphur dioxide mixes with the deadly outpourings of industry to produce a nightmare of poisoned air and chemically laced water. In some Indian cities rivers are stained garish blue and yellow; in cities like Bangkok canals are thick with factory wastes, excrement and garbage. Everywhere, city officials are nervous about enforcing pollution standards for fear industries will shut up shop - dirty jobs are better than none at all they reason. And factory owners won't curb pollution as long as extra costs cut into profits. Living standards deteriorate, pollution mounts, garbage piles up and environmentally based diseases are endemic.

 

SOCIAL TENSION

Packing people together in one place inevitably produces tensions - especially if there are glaring gaps between life on the street and life at the top. Poverty and hunger drive a lot of people to petty crime, prostitution and drug dealing. And public displays of wealth also stir up resentment; the rich become obvious targets for theft. Policemen, guard dogs, barbed wire and brick walls topped with broken glass are common features of life in Third World cities. Peasants leave deeply rooted, centuries-old, rural communities. In the city they meet people from different regions with different customs, sometimes speaking different languages, and they are thrown together in poorly serviced shantytowns. Weakened by disease and malnourishment, tempers fray easily; nerves balance on a knife edge. Drugs and booze ease the pressure, but they can also trigger violence. Murder, armed robbery, assault, rape and other violent crimes are commonplace in sprawling Third World slum communities.

 

PRESTIGE PROJECTS

In an effort to look sophisticated and successful, Third World governments often decide to join the modern world with a bang. Progress is equated with size: the bigger the better. Four-star hotels, skyscrapers, super highways and airports take priority over small-scale, local development efforts. Usually these projects benefit only a small wealthy élite - those who can afford to buy cars, ride airplanes or stay in a hotel. In the face of such grand schemes local communities are a quaint nuisance. Houses are bulldozed, small businesses uprooted and old architecture destroyed. Worse still, scarce investment capital is squandered and vast foreign debts taken on to finance these schemes.

 

CONSUMER IMPERIALISM

Adopting a high-tech, plastic and chrome style of urban development has disastrous consequences for local farmers, craftsmen and small shopkeepers. Middle and upper-income earners concentrate in the city and distort the market by demanding luxury consumer goods. Some items like cosmetics, processed foods and cigarettes may be produced locally - usually by foreign-owned firms. But often other products like automobiles and electronic goods must be imported. The main shopping streets in Third World cities stock identical goods produced by the same multinational corporations. Billboards and neon signs flash familiar Japanese and American company logos from Manaus to Manila. Social status is identified with what you own; advertising convinces even the poor to spend money they don't have on frivolous and even dangerous consumer goods. Nutritionally useless soft drinks replace fruit drinks, tea or water. Miracle elixirs and expensive patent drugs replace age-old traditional medicines. Commercially produced infant formula replaces breast milk. Dallas and Three's Company replace traditional myths and legends.

 

CONGESTION

By consciously choosing to concentrate resources in a few cities Third World nations have created a whirlpool effect - sucking in human and material resources from the countryside. Automobiles of the rich clog streets jammed with animals, bicycles, buses, auto-rickshaws and people on foot. The resulting congestion increases the competition to earn a living and puts more pressure on already scarce resources like food and housing. In addition services like public transport, electricity, sewerage and water supply are strained beyond capacity. Congestion also contributes to the social tension between residents of the city.

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