For the second time in United Nations history, the world will tomorrow, October 31, commemorate World Cities Day. This is a day to celebrate our cities, and to reflect on the potential of our cities as well as how to realise that potential but also to reflect on the challenges facing our cities and how to address them.
The history of urbanisation in much of Africa is littered with anti-urban policies that have sought to slow down, stop or reverse urbanisation. Urbanisation has been seen as the ‘bogeyman’ of all social, political and economic ills. There is, however, no evidence anywhere to show that these anti-urban policies have achieved their intended aim as people have continued to vote with their feet and move to towns and cities.
Empirical data suggests that urbanisation will continue until an equilibrium is reached-at around 80 percent urban and 20 percent rural. The rural development policy bias is not without its justification; poverty has been seen to have a rural face and this assumption is strengthened by the fact that urban areas tend to display consistently better indicators than rural areas in income, health, education and other outcomes in national statistics.
What the national statistics do not reveal are the stark intra-urban disparities between the rich and the poor. African cities are among the most unequal cities in the world where the majority poor live in extreme levels of deprivation which are often even more debilitating than those experienced by the rural poor.
Although urbanisation has largely been seen in the negative light, it is urban economies that drive the national economies. With only less than one percent of the land area and 16.5 percent of the national population, cities in Malawi contribute disproportionately to the national economy – 58 percent of Malawi GDP and much of the tax revenue is generated in cities. Cities have the economic infrastructure and the skilled human capital necessary for economic development and wealth creation.
The central place of cities in an urbanising world has been recognised by world leaders last month when among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is Goal 11 which commits countries to address sustainable cities and communities. Rather than trying to fight urbanisation, countries must make urbanisation sustainable because urbanisation is fundamental to national economic growth and poverty reduction. Urbanisation can be a positive force for human development; countries that are more urbanised tend to have higher incomes, more stable economies and stronger institutions. Some of the fastest growing economies such as China, Rwanda and Kenya have clear pro-urban policy focus.
There is a strong symbiotic relationship between rural prosperity and urban prosperity. There can be no rural prosperity without urban prosperity and vice-versa. Policies must seek to strengthen rural urban linkages as opposed to a dichotomy of skewed development. Investing to make cities sustainable is investing in rural prosperity. Investing to make cities work is investing in strengthening the national economy, wealth creation and in poverty reduction.
Governments and cities should pay more attention to inequity as a critical factor affecting prosperity. Addressing inequities requires political will, strong institutions and well-targeted policies.
Cities are also increasingly threatened by climate change and variability and associated urban risks. Climate change presents unique challenges for urban areas and their growing populations. Investing in resilient cities makes sound economic sense as risk exposed cities threaten national economies due to the concentration of population and production infrastructure which would be disrupted/lost in a disaster. Urban disasters have much greater impact on the national economy.
Building safer and resilient cities and communities must now be the preoccupation of all those involved in the planning, development and management of our cities at all levels. n