Teeming pressures of the new urban jungles

Mega-City Growth and the Future
June 28, 1996

This book is a compilation of 16 papers delivered at a conference at the United Nations University in Tokyo in 1990, as part of the UNU's Mega-city Project. The project was a response to the upsurge in urban growth in the developing countries "which, over the next 20 years, must absorb nearly one billion additional residents, as many as they had in total in 1990", according to the lead editor, Roland Fuchs. Indeed the numbers are startling. The estimated figures for the year 2000 (more recent UN estimates are even higher) show 28 megapolitan areas with populations of over eight million, led by Mexico City's 25.6 million and Sao Paulo next at 22.1 million. Of particular import is that of the 28 cities only five are in developed countries.

The cut-off point of eight million is arbitrary, and several authors raise the question of defining the mega-city. The answer probably lies in a judge's response to pornography, "I can't define it but I know it when I see it."

Many of the points are not new, but they bear repeating. The first is that the large city is a productive force in the national economy, generating a considerable part of the nation's GNP. It is not a den of evil sucking up the nation's revenues without paying its fair share. Indeed it returns considerably more than its fair share. A second point, made strongly by Andrew Hamer, is that size is not the issue. The issue, he says, is mismanagement at regional and local levels and "wrong-headed national urbanisation policies".

A third point is the pervasive poverty that characterises most of these third-world cities. Poverty and its well-known consequences of abysmal housing (or none at all), insanitary environments, malnutrition and ill health, and massive unemployment are spelled out by Om Prakash Mathur and others.

There are fresh viewpoints. Both Hamer's paper and the one by Johannes Linn and Deborah Wetzel argue that there is a sufficient income base in mega-cities to "provide near-universal access to adequate housing and public services". This depends on significant improvements in the assessing and collection of property taxes, user charges, fees and valorisation returns from the value added to property by public investment. And finally by private investment in infrastructure systems, (eg Boot, for Build, Own, Operate and Transfer back to public ownership). But it must be reckoned that these prescriptions are very tall orders.

Infrastructure costs for water and sewerage and for highways and mass transport are very high relative to incomes. Terrence McGee points out that in East and Southeast Asia an increasing pattern of urban growth is the mix of urban and rural, both in the composition of employment and land use. Presumably such development would require much less expensive infrastructure. But are these "desakotas" (McGee's word) simply in transition to a more urban environment?

Fu-Chen Lo notes the different curves of technology and economy of several countries over time. Some cities are better positioned to tap the rapidly growing knowledge-intensive industry than others. In the world system of cities there are the high-debt, high inflation cities of Latin America and Africa, the more mature economies of North America, the slowly growing economies of South Asia, and the fast-rising economies and cities of East Asia. These differences should not be overlooked in a broad-brush response to the problems of mega-cities.

Yok-shiu Lee stresses that environmental groups should recognise that, "The adverse effects of indoor air pollution and water-borne diseases on child mortality and women's life expectancy among the urban poor are of a global significance as great as that of the destruction of tropical rain forests."

These are brief notes on only a few of what is a collection of very good papers. They require more than reading; the issues raised and prescriptions offered should be pondered by those engaged in the struggle to plan, build and manage these gigantic cities.

Arthur Row is a consultant on mega-city issues for the United Nations.

Mega-City Growth and the Future

Editor - Roland J. Fuchs, Ellen Brennan, Joseph Chamie, Fu-Chen Lo and Julia I. Uittom
ISBN - 92 808 0820 6
Publisher - United Nations University Press
Price - £33.00
Pages - 428

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