citizens of Porto Alegre, Brazil, enjoy an average life expectancy of 76 years, which compares favourably with Europe and North America

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With good government, urbanisation
will produce higher living standards

By David Satterthwaite*

20 November 2007: Almost every part of the inhabited world has been urbanising. Today, half the world’s population lives in urban areas and most of the world’s growth in population is likely to be in urban areas. In addition, there is a profound long-term shift in the distribution of the world’s urban population. Neither Europe nor North America have most of the world’s urban population or most of its largest cities. Europe now has none of the world’s 100 fastest-growing cities — but most of its declining ones.

Africa has a larger urban population than North America. It also has many of the cities that have grown fastest in the past 50 years. Many large African cities have populations that have grown more than twenty-fold since 1950. These include Abidjan, Conakry, Dar es Salaam, Kaduna, Khartoum, Kinshasa, Lagos, Lusaka, Nairobi, Niamey, Ouagadougou and Yaounde.

South Africa’s main cities have not grown so rapidly, but most now have three to five times the population they had in 1950. Rapidly growing cities are difficult to manage. Most cities in Africa have much of their population living in poor- quality housing, lacking provision for water and sanitation — and much of this in squatter settlements.

Sub-Saharan Africa is often said to be urbanising ‘’prematurely’ as its countries lack the economic development that should underpin urbanisation. One has to have a certain sympathy for city politicians and administrators faced with rapidly growing populations and who often have very limited budgets and powers to raise revenues.

A rapid growth in urban problems can be used as a justification for trying to control migration to cities or pumping money into rural development in the hope that this will slow such migration. Both should be avoided.

The evidence of the past 50 years shows that urbanisation follows and supports economic development. The proportion of the population living in urban areas rises as most new jobs and investments are in industry and services located in urban areas.

In this, sub-Saharan Africa is no different to other regions. The issue is not to stop city growth, but to support the capacity of city and municipal governments to manage it and to provide quality housing and services. As city and municipal governments improve, so well-governed, well-located smaller cities can compete with the largest ones for new investment.

Good rural development is an essential part of any development — but it does not necessarily slow urbanisation and may speed it up. Successful, high-value agricultural crops and a prosperous farming population greatly boost urban development as this produces a rapid growth in rural demand for producer and consumer goods and services.

Meanwhile, urban development often serves rural development as rural family members find temporary or permanent jobs in urban areas, and their remittances improve incomes and living conditions in rural areas. Urban and rural potential complementarities need to be understood and supported.

There is also an assumption that rapidly growing cities are cities with serious environmental problems. But some of the world’s fastest-growing cities also have among the best-quality living standards. For example, Porto Alegre in Brazil has been one of the world’s fastest-growing cities over the past 50 years. Its citizens enjoy an average life expectancy of 76 years, which compares favourably with Europe and North America. Almost all its people are well served with piped water, sanitation and household waste collection.

Many reasons can be given for its success, but two stand out. The first is the much-improved quality of its government, in part supported by elected mayors as part of Brazil’s return to democracy in the ’80s and in part as a result of city governments being strengthened. The second is the way the city government worked with the low-income population, including a system of participatory budgeting which allowed citizens a much greater say in prioritising investments.

South Africa’s cities are unusual within sub-Saharan Africa in a number of respects. Generally, a much higher proportion of their populations receives water, sanitation and basic services. In addition, far more measures are being taken to work with low-income populations, including partnerships between many city governments and organisations formed by the urban poor such as the South African Federation of the Urban Poor — which receives support from the housing ministry.

Countries that support the competence and capacity of their city governments to address housing and infrastructure backlogs have the greatest chance of economic success and political stability in the future.

*David Satterthwaite is Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)

World Mayor 2023