See urbanisation as a positive – or fail

Billy Cobbett with Melanie Manuel and Bheki Buthelezi from the Community Organisation Resource Centre, S.Africa. Behind them is a model of a slum dwellers shack at the World Planning Schools Congress in Perth, W.Australia

A third of the world’s people are on the move, says Billy Cobbett, the Manager of Cities Alliance. Addressing the World Planning Schools Congress in Perth, Western Australia, Mr. Cobbett called for planners to transform the current wave of urbanisation into a sustainable process. However, he issued a grim warning – there is no certainty of success. Likening today’s situation to the historic migration to the New World, Mr. Cobbett cautioned that we have no guide to follow. “Most current policies are wrong”, he said. “Policies that fail to focus on urbanisation as a positive force for social, economic and political transformation are policies that will fail.”

Roughly 75% of the poor in developing countries still live in rural areas. But Mr.Cobbett explained that there is an urban solution to that rural problem, as experience from East Asia shows. If rural migrants can gain a toe hold in the urban economy they send home part of their earnings. However, the idea that it is only rural to urban migration that is stoking the astronomical urban growth in Africa and Asia is a fallacy. The youthful urban population is a key factor in natural demographic growth.

Contrast with DFID
Mr. Cobbett’s argument implies a critique of the way that the UK’s Department for International Development  has operated for a number of years now. There is no distinctive urban focus in DFID’s work, though of course some of the projects it funds are in urban areas and tackle problems such as slum upgrading. However, this is not the same as having an urban policy focus. DFID’s last expert advisor on urbanisation left some time ago and the post was not continued.
Yet, as Billy Cobbett insisted, “we must get the cities right”. This is surely correct, and not just because squalid urban conditions are unpleasant. Cities offer educational opportunities that are difficult to match in rural areas. Urban slums undermine efforts to improve health, not least infant and child mortality. Cities offer women new opportunities to work and earn income. It is in the cities that democratic aspirations are spawned and most likely to thrive.

Mr. Cobbett punctured another myth, the one that presumes urban growth is all about the mega cities. In fact the fastest growth is in the smaller and middling sized cities in Asia and Africa. China now has 122 cities of a million plus. Infrastructure provision too often fails to keep pace with urban growth, most of which is informal. “The response of most local governments is not to provide services and representation to these new arrivals. However, what is not provided formally will be provided informally. What then follows is the emergence of a parallel system of governance. It is these exclusionary policies that need to be transformed. The people in the city need to be connected spatially, socially, economically and politically.”

Out of date plans
Too often, as Mr. Cobbett pointed out, statutory plans for growing cities are hopelessly out of date. This fact alone is sufficient to deny legitimate title to many poor urban dwellers occupying houses or running businesses on land not zoned for development in the distant days when the last plan was made. “The mentality is that people must conform to planning rules set down 30 years ago. Instead, planners should formalise the informal. They need to focus on what will happen, not what they hope will happen. We urgently need planners to change the debate, and to make the profession felt where it is needed most, on the frontline of urbanisation.”

What to do?
Mr. Cobbett set out his “to do list”:

First, get the facts on the table. City mayors simply do not know who is in their city. They are driving blind. It is important to count those living in informal areas or on the streets.

Second, change the mentality from “containment” to expansion of the city.

Third, rethink standards. Typically planners set down standards for new development (road widths, building lines, space etc.) that most of the population simply cannot afford at first. Improvements will come over time, once households get established.

Fourth, planners need to focus on the whole city. There have been lots of neighbourhood-based or sector-based projects, often supported by aid agencies. However, the city as a whole needs to be addressed.

Fifth, look to the future, a future beyond the election cycle and the development budget. “We need 10, 20 and 30 year thinking. Get the urban boundaries moved out now and plan accordingly.”

Sixth, “Can you give Mayors simple planning tools to cope with this growth?”

Last but not least, there is no magic solution. It is good, dull governance that delivers in the long term. The role of planning in city management needs to be reasserted. Too often at present it is only an afterthought.

This agenda from the Cities Alliance echoes themes that have figured in a number of my World View blogs in recent months. The challenges are enormous but not insuperable. The Cities Alliance is working with the urban local governments. The Commonwealth Association of Planners is targeting Commonwealth governments. But one thing we still conspicuously lack is a strong, credible global voice of planners that is prepared to advocate for accommodation of the rapid urbanisation that is happening. At times it appears that all planners are desperately concerned about the long term impacts of climate change, but disengaged from the present realities of rapid urbanisation. Furthermore, the process of urban growth is too often viewed through the prism of traditional land use regulation. There is much more at stake than amenity and land use segregation.