The 10 and 1/2 myths that may distort the Urban Policies
of Governments and International Agencies
Theme 1:

[Myth 1]

Cities are parasitic, growing everywhere without the economy to support them  

[Myth 2]

Africa's urban population growing out of control without economic development
[Myth 3]

The future is predominantly urban

Myth 1

... Cities are parasitic, growing everywhere without the economy to support them

The distribution of urban population within and between nations is a measure of economic strength. All the world's wealthier nations have high proportions of their population living in urban areas, as a result of the concentration of most of their economic activities in urban centres. The nations with the greatest economic success over the last few decades are the nations that have urbanized most rapidly; there is a strong association between nations' average per capita incomes and their level of urbanization and most of the nations with the most rapid increase in their level of urbanisation in recent decades are also the nations with the most rapid economic growth.

The link between economic strength and urbanization can be seen in the concentration of the world's large cities in its largest economies (see Table 1). In 2000, the world's five largest economies (USA, China, Japan, India and Germany) had nine of the world's 16 largest cities (the so called 'mega-cities' each with 10 million or more inhabitants) and nearly half of all the cities with one million or more inhabitants. By 2000, all but two of the world's 16 mega-cities and more than two thirds of its million-cities were in the 20 largest economies. Similarly, within each of the world's regions, most of the largest cities are concentrated in the largest economies - for instance, Brazil and Mexico in Latin America and China, India, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea in Asia. Note that this association of large cities and large economies does not relate to the average income per person but to the total size of the national economy.

There are certain features of urban areas that might be considered parasitic. For instance, they may concentrate a disproportionate share of public investment in infrastructure and services, so provision for water, sanitation, health care, schools and other key needs are better there - although this is not always the case - see later. Cities may be considered parasitic in an ecological sense, as they can impose high environmental costs on their surrounds, drawing resources and dumping wastes. This is not inherent to cities however, but is related to the actions of particular groups in cities and to poor governance. As a later section discusses, there are many positive links between rural and urban areas, especially between urban demand and the prosperity of farmers. Certain groups within each national population that are exploitative (or may be judged to be) are usually concentrated in cities - the very rich including large landowners and owners or shareholders in successful industries or service enterprises, corrupt politicians and civil servants - but it is not the city they live in that is exploitative. Certainly, there is a need for development patterns and governance structures that are less exploitative, that uphold poorer groups' civil and political rights, that build in transparency and accountability to undermine possibilities of corruption, that ensure better working conditions and that prevent industries and urban concentrations passing on ecological burdens. But this does not imply a need for anti-urban policies.

It is still common to see "bright lights" theories used to explain rapid urban growth (rural migrants being attracted by cities' bright lights) but more than three decades of careful research shows how most migration flows are rational responses to changing patterns of economic opportunity or social advancement (especially through education) - or simply responses to severe deprivation or exploitation. Assumptions are often made that urban poverty grows because poor rural migrants flock to cities and live in squatter settlements yet most of the inhabitants of many squatter settlements are city-born. They live there because they cannot afford better accommodation, not because they have arrived recently from the countryside. And what goes unnoticed is the dynamism, innovation and investment that so many 'poor' people bring to cities. The 'urban poor' are responsible for building most new homes and neighbourhoods in most cities in Africa, Asia and Latin America over the last few decades. The scale of their investment in the city as they build and develop their own homes and neighbourhoods (and often small enterprises) is generally far higher than the investments made by governments and international agencies. The total investment per person per year made by most urban governments is the equivalent of less than US$10; it is often less than US$1. The value of the investments made each year by most low income households who have managed to obtain land on which to build is considerably larger than this.

The world is less urbanised in 2000 than was expected and one reason why is the slow economic growth (or the economic decline) that many low and middle income nations have experienced since 1980. This helps explain slower population growth rates for many cities in Africa and Latin America. Part of this is related to structural adjustment policies that brought declines in employment, real incomes and urban welfare, and proved to be less successful than hoped in stimulating economic growth.

The changing distribution of large cities around the world reflects changing patterns of economic advantage. Table 2 shows the changing distribution of the world's largest cities by region over the last 200 years. The rapid increase in the number of 'million-cities' in Asia between 1950 and 2000 and Asia's much-increased share of the number of the world's largest cities reflects its much increased share of the world economy during this period.

The fact that what are often termed 'developing countries' have most of the world's largest cities is often raised as a cause of concern. But historically, these countries have always had many or most of the world's largest cities; what is more unusual is the brief period during which first Europe and then North America came to concentrate so many of the world's largest cities. During most of the 8,000 years or so of recorded urban history and pre-history, Asia has had a high concentration of the world's urban population and most of its largest cities. In 1800, it had more of the world's largest cities than it has today (see table 2) although its share in the world's largest cities is increasing and is likely to continue increasing, reflecting its increasing share in the world economy. Many of Asia's largest cities today have very long histories as important cities, including Tokyo (and its historic predecessor Edo), Beijing (formerly Peking), Guangzhou (formerly Canton) and Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). By comparison, Calcutta and Mumbai may be relatively new - but they still have urban histories of several hundred years. North Africa has also had several of the world's largest and most important cities for long periods - Cairo, Alexandria, Fez and Tunis (formerly Carthage). Historically, what is today called Latin America has long had most of the largest cities in the Americas - both before and after the European conquests. In 1800, Latin America had three of the world's 100 largest cities and North America had none.

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Myth 2 (semi-myth):

... Africa's urban population is growing out of control without economic development

Africa is often singled out as an example of a region with particularly rapid urban growth is taking place without economic growth. Certainly, Africa has some of the world's fastest growing cities over the last fifty years (although very few of its largest cities) and many African nations have had very little economic growth in recent decades. But one of the main reasons why urban change has been so rapid in recent decades is that it began from such a small base, as the European colonial powers who controlled virtually all of Africa 50 years ago had kept down urban populations by imposing restrictions on the rights of their national populations to live and work in urban centres. The removal or weakening of the colonial apartheid-like controls on population movements was one of the reasons why urban populations grew so rapidly just before or after the ending of colonial rule. For instance, urban growth dynamics over the last 40 years in South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) cannot be understood without taking into account the profound impact of controls on people's movement imposed by white minority regimes on the composition and growth of cities. In South Africa, with the lifting of long-applied restrictions on African urbanisation in 1986 and then the ending of the apartheid government, the country became an increasingly popular destination for refugees and migrants from other African nations, which had a profound impact on urban development. In some countries, a considerable part of the migrant flows to cities in the transition between colonial rule and independence or after independence was women and children joining their husbands/partners who were living and working in urban areas - because they had not been permitted to do so under colonial rule.

Another reason for rapid urban population growth was the achievement of political independence. Newly independent governments had to build the institutions of governance that nation-states need and also to expand the higher education system that had been so undeveloped under colonial rule. This obviously boosted growth in the urban centres that were the main political and administrative centres. Many commentators view the rapid growth of sub-Saharan African cities over the last 50 years as a serious problem. But if a large part of this rapid change is related to political independence and the removal of highly discriminatory controls on the right of the population to move freely, it suggests it also has positive aspects.

The World Bank and various other commentators have suggested that sub-Saharan Africa is unusual because it has been urbanising rapidly without economic growth. But for many nations in this region, the lack of recent census data or any other accurate information on the size of their urban populations provides little basis for this claim. Many sub-Saharan African nations have had no census for 10-20 years. There are also indications that rates of increase in levels of urbanization have slowed down in much of sub-Saharan Africa and that, contrary to the World Bank's belief, the nations that have urbanised most are generally those with the best economic performance.

Sub-Saharan Africa does have examples of cities growing rapidly without economic growth, because they become the destination of large numbers of people fleeing wars or civil unrest. For instance, millions of people fled to urban areas in Angola, Mozambique and the Sudan during civil wars there during the 1980s and 1990s, just as they had done in Zimbabwe during the liberation struggle of the 1970s. Many cities in Africa in nations without civil conflict have their populations boosted by immigrants fleeing civil strife. Wen peace is established, the links between economic change and urban change return. For instance, in both Mozambique and Zimbabwe, there was significant out-migration from some cities when conflict ended. If the peace holds in Angola, many Angolans living in different cities around Africa will return; many city dwellers may also return to their farms. If peace and economic stability is established in DR Congo (formerly Zaire), many cities or refugee camps in neighbouring countries will lose population.

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Myth 3
... The future is predominantly urban  
This is not so much a myth as an assumption that can be questioned. The world will only become predominantly urban if the economic changes that underpin urbanization take place. For 40 years, there has been an assumption that the world's population will become ever more urbanized. Projections are routinely made up to the year 2025 or 2030, showing the level of urbanization in each nation and the size to which the world's largest cities will grow. This in turn generates statements like 'the world has to accommodate two billion more urban dwellers by the year 2025'. But the future size of any city depends on its economic performance and as will be described later, many of the world's largest cities are having difficulties attracting new investments. Any nation's level of urbanization depends on its economic performance. Africa will only become increasingly urban if most of its more populous nations have greater economic success than they had during the 1990s.

Few economists would dare to predict the level of economic growth in each nation up to 2025 or 2030. But for all low and middle income nations, their level of urbanization in 2025 will be much influenced by their economic performance. One hopes that low-income nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America are much more urbanized in 2025 than they are today because this would be the result of them achieving stronger economies.

The world's future level of urbanization will also be much influenced by the economic performance of the most populous nations that currently have low levels of urbanization. It would only need India to have high economic growth rates for the next 10-15 years and for China to maintain the very rapid economic growth rates it has achieved over the last 15-20 years for the world to become significantly more urban than anticipated.

In addition, perhaps too much is made of the world's level of urbanization since this is in part a matter of definition. The world could acquire several hundred million more urban dwellers overnight if India or China were to change their definitions of "urban centres" to those used by nations such as Peru and Sweden and this in turn would mean that most poverty in India was in urban areas.

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