Worldwide Urbanization

WASHINGTON — The United Nations Population Fund issued its annual State of World Population report here this week, claiming that the ongoing surge in the planet’s urban populations could be a positive thing if international policymakers shift their mentality toward planning ahead for growth in cities rather than reacting to it later.

“Urbanization is inevitable,” said George Martine, principal author of the report, titled “Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth.”

“The train is in motion,” he said, “and together we have to make sure it’s on the right track.”

Among the report’s highlights are assertions that urban areas around the globe are currently swelling at more than 1.2 million people a week, that by 2008 more than half of the world’s population will live in towns and cities, and that some 60 percent of those urban dwellers will be under the age of 18.

Good and Bad of Urbanization

Martine told reporters that by 2030, the world’s urban population alone will have grown to almost 5 billion, with the growth centering on cities as rural area populations shrink. The majority of the growth, he said, will occur in the developing nations of Africa and Asia.

Urban growth can be positive for socio-economic development and sustainability, because it goes hand in hand with industrialization, said Martine, who added that no industrialized country has ever experienced economic growth without urbanization.

“But for this to happen, cities need to prepare now,” he said. “If they wait and simply react to growth as we’ve been doing, it will be too late.”

Most cities in developing countries already have problems, such as sprawling slums, environmental degradation and sanitation issues.

Plight of Women in Cities

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, who participated in the release of the report at the National Press Club on June 27, said “slum dwellers are no longer the minority” — one in three city residents lives in a slum, or 1 billion people. Half of these are women and girls.

However, urban women are more involved in the work force than rural women, said Maloney, who noted how some 80 percent of the 50 million workers currently employed to do factory work in the world’s export processing zones are young women.

Cities also serve as sites for women to make connections, both socially and in the workplace, she said. Women have more access to legal information in urban centers as well.

More Help Needed From the Wealthy

More needs to be done to support these growing populations in developing countries, according to Maloney, who pointed out that by 2030, approximately 60 percent of the world’s urban residents will be under 18.

This generation will need education and health care, especially about HIV/AIDS prevention, she said. “Unfortunately, the United State government has taken a go-it-alone approach to its international health assistance.”

Noting that the United States does not favor allowing recipient governments to set their own priorities for health spending, Maloney argued that the United States needs to provide more financial support and put fewer restrictions on its assistance to reproductive health care programs.

“If [cities] are going to be places of hope rather than wastelands, governments need to act now,” she said.

Investing in facilities such as health care centers and sewage treatment plants in urban areas is more cost effective than dong so in rural areas because they can benefit more people per dollar spent, Maloney added.

Martine, meanwhile, said that planning ahead to deal with space, waste management and transport will make a huge difference in the world’s cities because they are the “best hope for sustainability.”

Lauren Gardner is a summer 2007 international news inter for WPR. Her last dispatch to the blog focused on security in the Black Sea Region.