State of the World's Cities. Bridging the urban divide State of the World’s Cities. Bridging the urban divide


The world is inexorably becoming urban. By 2030, developping regions, including Asia and Africa, will have more people living in urban than rural areas. In the next 20 years, Homo Sapiens, “the wise human”, will become homo sapiens urbanus in virtually all regions of the planet.  Cities – whether large or small, whole neighbourhoods, city centres, suburban or peri-urban areas – offer human beings the potential to share urban spaces, participate in public and private events and exercise both duties and rights. These opportunities in turn make it possible to cultivate societal values and define modes of governance and other rules that enable human beings to produce goods, trade with others and get access to resources, culture, and various forms of riches or well-being.


Cities can be open or closed with regard to residents’ ability to access, occupy and use urban space, and even produce new spaces to meet their needs. Cities can also be open or closed in terms of residents’ ability to access decisions and participate in various types of interaction and exchange. Some residents find the city as the place where social and political life takes place, knowledge is created and shared, and various forms of creativity and art are developed; other residents find that the city denies them these opportunities. Cities can therefore be places of inclusion and participation, but they can be also places of exclusion and marginalization.


The Urban Divide


Cities are constantly changing. They are built, rebuilt, transformed, occupied by different groups, and used for different functions. In the search for better spatial organization for higher returns, more efficient economies of scale and other agglomeration benefits, cities generate various degrees of residential differentiation. In most urban areas of the developed world, the segmentation of spaces for different uses is relatively visible, although social heterogeneity and mixed uses remain widespread. In contrast, in many cities of the developing world, the separation of uses and degrees of prosperity are so obvious that the rich live in well-serviced neighbourhoods, gated communities and well-built formal settlements, whereas the poor are confined to inner-city or peri-urban informal settlements and slums.


Cities, particularly in the South, are far from offering equal conditions and opportunities to their resident communities. The majority of the urban population is prevented from, or restricted in, the fulfillment of their basic needs because of their economic, social or cultural status, ethnic origins, gender or age. Others, a minority, benefit from the economic and social progress that is typically associated with urbanization. In some of these cities, the urban divide between “haves” and “have nots” opens up a gap – if not, on occasion, a chasm, an open wound – which can produce social instability or at least generate high social and economic costs not only for the urban poor, but for society at large.


Cities are, more often than not, divided by invisible borders. These split the “centre” from the “off-centre”, or the “high” from the “low”, as the urban divide is colloquially referred to in many parts of the South. These man-made demarcations are often completely different along a spatial and social continuum, reflecting the only difference experienced by their respective populations: socio-economic status. Closer assessment of the urban space in many cities of the developing world sheds forensic light on the fragmentation of society, marking out differences in the way space and opportunities are produced, appropriated, transformed and used. Some areas feature significant infrastructure, well-kept parks, gardens and up-market residential areas. In contrast, other areas are characterized by severe deprivation, inadequate housing, deficient services, poor recreation and cultural facilities, urban decay, and scarce capital investment in public infrastructure.


These tangible differences in access come as symptoms of the intangible yet enduring divisions in society that apportion unequal opportunities and liberties across residents. The physical divide takes the form of social, cultural and economic exclusion. Large sections of society are frequently excluded on grounds of predetermined attributes over which they have no control at all, such as gender, age, race, or ethnicity, or over which they have very little control, such as where they live (slums vs. rich neighbourhoods) or what they own (income and social status). However, this narrow perspective overlooks the actual and potential contributions of marginalized groups to the building of cities and nations, and therefore can only delay progress toward sustainable and inclusive development.


The urban divide is the face of injustice and a symptom of systemic dysfunction. A society cannot claim to be harmonious or united if large numbers of people cannot meet their basic needs while others live in opulence. A city cannot be harmonious if some groups concentrate resources and opportunities while others remain impoverished and deprived. Yet cities are not – and should not be – “the world which man created, and therefore the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live”. Cities are, on the contrary, vehicles for social change: places where new values, beliefs and ideas can forge a different growth paradigm that promotes rights and opportunities for all members of society. Based not only on moral and ethical arguments but also practical access to opportunity, the concept of an “inclusive city”, or “a city for all”, encompasses the social and economic benefits of greater equality, promoting positive outcomes for each and every individual in society.


Urban Trends


Urbanization: A Positive Force for Transformation


By the mid-20th century, three out of 10 people on the planet lived in urban areas. At that time, and over the following three decades, demographic expansion was at its fastest in cities around the world. Subsequently, a slow but steady process of deceleration took over. Today, half the world’s population lives in urban areas and by the middle of this century all regions will be predominantly urban, with the tipping point in Eastern Africa anticipated slightly after 2050. According to current projections, virtually the whole of the world’s population growth over the next 30 years will be concentrated in urban areas. Although many countries have adopted an ambivalent or hostile attitude to urbanization, often with negative consequences, it appears today that this worldwide process is inevitable. It is also generally positive, as it brings a number of fundamental changes, namely: (a) in the employment sector, from agriculture-based activities to mass production and service industries; (b) in societal values and modes of governance; (c) in the configuration and functionality of human settlements; (d) in the spatial scale, density and activities of cities; (e) in the composition of social, cultural and ethnic groups; and (f ) in the extension of democratic rights, particularly women’s empowerment.


Using a wealth of significant and comparative new data, this Report identifies the trends, both similar and dissimilar, that characterize urbanization in various regions and countries; it does so against a background of significant recent changes, such as accelerated expansion or shrinking of cities, ageing populations, urban and regional dynamics and regional location factors, among others. In this respect, it is worth mentioning two significant trends that can either help bridge or exacerbate the urban divide:

  • Cities are merging together to create urban settlements on a massive scale. These configurations take the form of mega-regions, urban corridors and city-regions. They are emerging in various parts of the world, turning into spatial units that are territorially and functionally bound by economic, political, socio-cultural, and ecological systems. Cities in clusters, corridors and regions are becoming the new engines of both global and regional economies, and they reflect the emerging links between urban expansion and new patterns of economic activity. However, as they improve inter-connectivity and create new forms of interdependence among cities, these configurations can also result in unbalanced regional and urban development as they strengthen ties to existing economic centres, rather than allow for more diffused spatial development.

    The challenge here is for local authorities and regional governments to adopt policies that maximize the benefits of urbanization and respondto theseforms ofinter-connectivityand cityinterdependence. The rationale is to promote regional economic development growth, as well as to anticipate and manage the negative consequences of urban/regional growth, such as asymmetrical regional and urban development that has the potential to compound the urban divide.

  • More and more people both in the North and South are moving outside the city to “satellite” or dormitory cities and suburban neighbourhoods, taking advantage of accommodation that can be more affordable than in central areas, with lower densities and sometimes a better quality of life in certain ways. Spatial expansion of cities is triggered not only by residents’ preference for a suburban lifestyle, but also by land regulation crises, lack of control over periurban areas, weak planning control over land subdivisions, improved or expanded commuting technologies and services, as well as greater population mobility. Whether it takes the form of “peripherization” (informal settlements) or “suburban sprawl” (residential zones for high- and middle-income groups), sub-urbanization generates negative environmental, economic and social externalities. In developing countries, the phenomenon comes mainly as an escape from inadequate governance, lack of planning and poor access to amenities. Rich and poor seek refuge outside the city, which generates further partitioning of the physical and social space.



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