The Facts

United States

new internationalist
issue 178 - December 1987

Cities - The Facts
An Urban World

For most of human history people have lived in the countryside. That is now changing. By the turn of the century the balance will have shifted irreversibly. Cities will dominate - and the bulk of the urban population will be in the Third World.

In the past 50 years cities in the poor world have mushroomed at a phenomenal rate. Most have developed along the lines of their Western counterparts. New York, London and Paris have set the pace - Singapore, Jakarta, Sao Paulo, Lagos and Bogota have followed suit. The result has been flashy showpiece projects like airports and convention centres at the expense of affordable housing, public transport and jobs.

Here we look at the causes behind such spectacular growth and at the resulting social and economic tensions - the facts on global urbanization.


At the turn of the century barely 14 per cent of the earth's population lived In urban areas.1 By the year 2000 half the population of the earth will live in cities, most of those in the developing nations. In 1940 only one person In eight lived in an urban centre while one in the 100 lived in a city of a million or more. By 1960, one in five lived in a city and one in 16 in a 'million city'. By 1980 one in three was an urban dweller and one in ten a 'million city' resident.2

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[image, unknown] From 1920-80 the number of Third World city dwellers rose from 100 million to nearly a billion. In the 1950s millions fled impoverished rural areas. Since then urban growth rates have fallen from 5.5% to 3.4% - still triple the rate in industrialized nations.4 Now most Third World cities are growing not from migration but from natural internal growth.

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In 1950 only three of the world's 10 largest cities were in the Third World. UN projections for the year 2000 suggest eight of the largest ten urban areas will be in the poor world.

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Photo: Steve Benbow / Camera Press


Cities concentrate both resources and people. Many Third World countries have encouraged the growth of one large city (usually the capital) to keep pace with the fast-moving international economy. These centres have become parasites sucking up the lion's share of investment and quickening rural/urban migration.

With just 300/o of the country's people Mexico City dominates the rest of the nation. In 1983 the city generated 44% of Mexico's gross domestic product and 52% of industrial production while cornering 54% of all social services.16

· Only one in seven Filipinos lives in Manila but most of the modern economy is concentrated there: a third of the Philippines GNP is based in the city including 70% of all imports and 60% of all manufacturing.17

· With just ten per cent of Brazil's population Sao Paulo dominates national industry and hogs more than its share of national resources. Nearly half the nation's industrial output and half of all manufacturing jabs are concentrated there. The city also consumes 44% of the country's electricity and has 40% of all telephones.18


Photo: Sunil Kumar Dutt / Camera Press Jobless migrants to the city have little spare cash. They usually end up in low-cost slum housing, in temporary shelters or on the street. In the Third World most live in crudely built shantytowns - unplanned settlements now growing four times faster than world population growth.

· Fifty to 75% of all Third World city dwellers live in slums or shantytowns.8

· An estimated 50,000 homeless people live on New York streets; another 27,000 live in temporary shelters and an estimated 100,000 households are doubled in apartments of friends and relatives.9

· In Calcutta one-third of the population lives in temporary single-storey huts each shared by an average of five families.10

· In 1979, 75% of families in Lagos. Nigeria lived in single-room shacks and 78% of households shared kitchen facilities with another family.


Third World slums are unplanned and uncontrolled. Squatters usually lack water, sewers, garbage removal, power, paved streets and other services like postal delivery and fire fighting. They live on the worst land, near swamps, garbage heaps, dirty industrial sites or on the sides of steep ravines. As a result houses are cramped, living conditions dangerous and disease-ridden. Acute respiratory diseases are common. Tuberculosis, intestinal parasites and other diseases linked to poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water are also endemic.

· In Guayaquil, Ecuador 60% of the population live in shantytowns above garbage-strewn mudflats and polluted water.12

· In Alexandria, Egypt a sewage system built for a million people now serves four million. Parts of the city are literally awash in raw sewage. 13

· A 1979 survey found half of Bogota's slum dwellers lacked sewers, more than a third lacked water and electricity.14

· In many Third World slums a quarter of all children die of serious malnutrition before their fourth birthday. And half of all adults suffer from intestinal worms or serious respiratory illnesses.15



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 People move to the city for a variety of reasons. In most cases it's a question of 'push and pull'. In the Third World especially migrants are both pulled by the city and pushed from the countryside.


Freedom - Young people who feel hemmed in by tradition and rigid customs come to lose themselves in the crowds and the permissiveness of the city.

Bright Lights - Cities appear moe exciting and glamorous; they attract the bored, the lonely, the ambitious and the adventurous.

Work - Wages are higher and jobs seem more plentiful in the city. Living costs are higher too but the possibility of paid work is a powerful lure.

Better Living - City families may end up in slums but they are usually closer to clinics and hospitals and probably have easier access to electricity and water than their country cousins.


Disasters - Wars, floods and other disasters force people into refugee camps which are often on the outskirts of major cities.

Country Blues - Governments tend to support city-based industries while ignoring rural areas. Young people see better opportunities for education and advancement in the cities.

Landlessness - Export crops favour big farmers who can afford increased mechanization, fertilizers and high-yield seeds. Small farmers lose their land and have to look for work in the city.

Urban Ideology - The country is seen as backward and dull, an image no common with the global spread of consumer culture. Young people go to the city to be 'modern'.

. Bertrand Renaud. National Urbanization in Developing Countries. Wortd Bank 1981
2. Urban, Rural and City Populations 1050-2000. UN 1980
3. Estimates and Protections of Urban, Rural and City Populations, 1950-2025, UN 1985
4. OECD Document DAC (86)47, 1986
5. See 2 above
6. State of World Population 1986, UNPPA
7. Shelter News No?
8. From a statement by John Con, ex-director of the international Yeat of Shelter for he Homeless. 1984
9. Stemming the Tide of Displacement, Coalition or the Homeless et at, 1986
10. United Nations Populution Division, 1986
11. Assessing the Future of Urbanization. Lester Brown and Jodi Jackson. State of the World 1987
12. Patrick McAuslan, Urban Land and Shelter lot the Poor. 1985
13. Hardoy aisd Sattetthwaite, Third World Cities and the Environment of Poverty
14. Ibid
15. The Urban Challenge. HABITAT, 1987
16. See 13 above
17. Habitat International, Vol.10. No.4. 1986
18. See 11 above.

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