Urban environments are complex to understand. The success of development interventions is often hard to attribute to one or a few key actions. Therefore in a time of economic austerity, that means there is a risk that development agencies may not prioritise investment in complexity — despite the evident need.
The future is urban!
The urban condition and the urban environment is here to stay. As we all know, over half the world's people now live in towns and cities and this proportion will rise to nearly two-thirds by 2030. This is partly through population growth in urban centres, but also through migration to urban areas, because for most it is the rational thing to do. 'Spatial agglomeration' gives rise to economic growth, opportunity, employment and trade. And in a global scenario of increasing drought and flood, towns and cities offer some opportunity for formal and informal employment for the landless rural poor.
But poorly planned and poorly serviced urban centres without electricity, water, sanitation and some form of tenure give rise to alienation, extremes of vulnerability and the potential for break-down of social stability and order — sometimes with the potential to threaten the existence of the ruling class of the state. Already over a billion people live in slums and this number will probably double by 2030.
It is important to not focus exclusively on the 'mega-city'--those with populations in excess of 10 million. The parallel development challenge is to cope with all those growing villages and small towns, which need to be connected to markets and each other.
What is urban?
It is important to not focus exclusively on the 'mega-city' — those with populations in excess of 10 million. Because these larger populations justify large capital lending from the international financial institutions (IFIs), they tend to be the focus of attention. The parallel development challenge is to cope with all those growing villages and small towns, which need to be connected to markets and each other. Unplanned development in these smaller centres will result in unattractive urban sprawl, with ad hoc arrangements for waste management, the provision of schools and health clinics, and poorly planned and inadequate electricity, sewerage and roads provision.
Urban and rural environments are inextricably interconnected; those where the connections work well ensure more adequate supplies of food, raw materials, water, energy and employment opportunity than those that are disconnected. This interconnectivity is particularly important to take into account when considering the need to 'future-proof' against the impact of climate change, since any interruption of food, transport links, water and electricity will cause chaos and hardship within days.
Arguably the flows of international development capital follow the sociopolitically dominated domestic priorities of the sending countries, generally with a plethora of literature supporting the current list of international priorities. Over the last two years, the international focus has been on economic growth and trade, climate change (mitigation and adaptation), the infrastructure sectors of transport, water and sanitation, energy, health, education and social protection measures.
The key players are the IFIs, the multilateral development banks, UN institutions (when funded), national governments and subnational entities; but also engaged are the private and third sector players including the wealthy Foundations, NGOs, CBOs and wider civil society. Important for the 21st century is the shift from development models based on the G8/OECD and Washington Consensus to a wider G20 with a leading role played by the BRICs. With a few exceptions, including activities led by (the inadequately-funded) UN-HABITAT, the World Bank's Cities Alliance and the Rockefeller Foundation, few agencies are organised internally to address the urban environment as a coherent and interconnected entity.
The global economic downturn and attendant 'age of austerity' make it ever harder to argue the case for development aid to a domestic electorate under straightened circumstances. The litany of past failure, corruption, political uncertainty and the incredible sums of money required (e.g. 68 billion US dollars from now until 2020 for regional infrastructure in Africa) mean that simple choices whose success can be pointed to and celebrated are preferred by politicians and aid agencies alike: "X million pounds buys Y million mosquito nets saving Z lives of children under five next year!" This is also the kind of simple advertising you see on your television screen from the international NGOs.
With a few exceptions, including activities led by (the inadequately-funded) UN-HABITAT, the World Bank's Cities Alliance and the Rockefeller Foundation, few agencies are organised internally to address the urban environment as a coherent and interconnected entity.
Helping towns and cities to avoid the mistakes of the past, adapt to climate change, address energy, water and waste-management deficits, often in fragile states, means that explaining what benefit derives from what investment starts to get more difficult — and may score less well in the new focus on impact and success stories. So the question for the future is: will key institutions act in defence of their internal resourcing and domestic political economy priorities, or take on the real of the world as it has become — an urban one?