by David Satterthwaite



Over the last 100 years, the world's urban population has grown more than tenfold and now close to half the world's population lives in urban areas. Many aspects of urban change are unprecedented, including not only the size of the world's urban population but also the number of countries becoming more urbanised and the size and number of very large cities. Many urban changes are dramatic - there are dozens of cities whose populations grew twentyfold in the last 50 years. Rapid urban change has often brought serious environmental problems; there are also serious (and growing) problems of urban poverty.

But there are many positive elements to these urban changes. Within lower-income nations, rapid increases in the proportion of people living in urban areas is usually a result of stronger, more diverse economies. The increase in the proportion of people living in urban centres worldwide over the last 100 years has been fuelled by the expansion in the world's economy, most of which took place in industrial and service enterprises located in urban areas. Since most economic growth continues to be in urban-based enterprises, the trend towards increasingly urban populations is likely to continue.

For many nations, rapid urban change over the last 50 years is associated with the achievement of independence and the removal of colonial controls on people's right to move in response to changing economic opportunities. The concentration of population in urban areas greatly reduces the unit costs of providing good quality water supplies and good quality provision for sanitation, health care, schools and other services. It also provides more possibilities for their full involvement in government. And, perhaps surprisingly, urban areas can also provide many environmental advantages including less resource use, less waste and lower levels of greenhouse gases.

These positive elements of urban change often go unnoticed. And many publications exaggerate the scale and speed of urban change. The most recent censuses (most of them held in 2000 or 2001) show that the world is less urbanized and less dominated by large cities that had been expected. Many of the largest cities had several million people less in 2000 than had been predicted. Many also have more people moving out than in. In many nations, more decentralized patterns of urban development are reducing the dominance of 'mega-cities'. These are at odds with the commonly held view that urban growth in Africa, Asia and Latin America is "explosive", "unprecedented" or "out of control". In addition, it often goes unnoticed that many of the world's fastest growing cities over the last 50 years are in the United States. This does not mean that there are not very serious urban problems in low or middle income nations. Indeed, as described in a later section, the scale and depth of urban poverty is under-estimated. But it does question the assumption that it is urbanization or the speed of urban growth that is the problem.

There is an economic logic to the locations where rapid urbanization is taking place since it is mostly in nations or regions that are developing stronger, more robust economies. Cities have great economic importance in most nations, as the locations where much of the national economy is located, most tax revenues are generated and most economic growth has taken place in the last 30 years. Well-governed cities and urban systems are an essential part of economic and social development. Well-governed cities are also setting new standards within nations for more democratic, accountable, transparent political systems. Well-governed cities are critical for nations that wish to meet their local and global environmental responsibilities. They are also critical for reducing poverty. This contradicts commonly held views that cities are parasitic and the main contributors to local and global environmental degradation.

This paper identifies twelve myths about urban areas - or to be more precise, ten and a half myths, since three of them are partially true statements in need of qualification to make them useful. These myths underpin and perpetuate ineffective and often inappropriate policies by governments and international agencies. These myths will be presented under five headings:

  1. the links between economic change and urban change, especially the contribution of urban areas to national economies and the relationship between rural and urban areas (are cities 'parasitic'?)
  2. the scale of urban change (including the role of mega-cities), the speed of change (are city populations 'exploding' and cities 'mushrooming'?) and the extent to which the world is or will be predominantly urban ("will all regions of the world will be predominantly urban by 2025"?)
  3. rural versus urban areas (is most poverty in rural areas? is urban development opposed to rural development?)
  4. the links between poverty and environmental degradation (is poverty a major cause of environmental degradation and do large and rapidly growing cities have the worst environmental problems?)
  5. what should be done (do we need "national strategies" and "best-practices" from which to learn?)

Theme 1:

MYTH 1: "Cities are parasitic, growing everywhere without the economy to support them"

MYTH 2 (semi myth): "Africa's urban population growing out of control without economic development."

MYTH 3: The future is predominantly urban

Theme 2:

MYTH 4: "Mega-cities are growing rapidly and will dominate the urban future"

MYTH 5: "More than half the world's population live in cities"

MYTH 6: "The speed of urban change in poorer nations is unprecedented with new cities mushrooming everywhere and with Africa, Asia and Latin America having most of the largest and fastest growing cities"

Theme 3:

MYTH 7 (semi-myth):"Most poverty is in rural areas"

MYTH 8: "Urban development is opposed to rural development"

Theme 4:

MYTH 9: Poverty is a major cause of environmental degradation

MYTH 10: Large and rapidly growing cities have the worst environmental problems

Theme 5:

MYTH 11: "New national and global policies and institutions are needed to address urban problems"

MYTH 12: "National governments and international agencies must target their policies so as to reach those most in need in urban areas"



The complete document (including all the myths) can be viewed through the following link:
The 10 and 1/2 Myths
Pdf (355KB)


The above elaboration draws on work undertaken by the research programme conducted by David Satterthwaite and colleagues, at the Human Settlements Programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). In particular, it draws on his work with Jorge Hardoy from 1978 until his death in 1993, and on the work of Gordon McGranahan, Diana Mitlin, Cecilia Tacoli, Sheridan Bartlett and, in IIED-America Latina, Ana Hardoy.
The sections on the speed of urban change drew much inspiration from a great 'myth-busting' paper by Preston, Samuel H. (1979),"Urban growth in developing countries: a demographic reappraisal", Population and Development Review, Vol. 5, No. 2 and also from the work of Deborah Potts (see references