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Urbanization: Out of Balance and Growing

Urbanization: Out of Balance and Growing, by By César Chelala

NEW YORK—When observing the chaotic, burgeoning growth of the modern city, the more erudite of urban planners will reminisce wistfully on how different it is from its ancient Greek counterpart, the polis, which Italian architectural historian Leonardo Benevolo once described as “dynamic but stable, in balance with nature, and growing manageably even after reaching large dimensions.”

The rapid and uncontrolled sprawl of today’s cities breeds anxiety not only among urban planners and architects. Experts in the field of public health are alarmed as well, for the apparent randomness of the urban dynamic is robbing the population of its basic health and well-being through unregulated environmental pollution, shrinking green areas, inadequate housing, overburdened public services, a mushrooming of makeshift settlements on the outskirts lacking in both infrastructure and services, mounting anomie, and the sheer numbers of neighbors who do not know neighbors.

Beijing, a city of over 17 million inhabitants, exemplifies this social alienation. Until the early 1980s, the Chinese capital was constructed as a multitude of “siheyuans,” or one-story complexes built around a common courtyard that were inhabited by three or four families who shared a single kitchen and water spigot. These courtyards were connected by narrow streets called “hutongs” that formed a grid from north to south and east to west.

This open structure greatly facilitated contact between neighbors, encouraged the sharing of resources, fostered relations between contiguous families, and enabled the elderly to care for children and share with them their passion for songbirds. Because of these characteristics, these almost idyllic structures were described as “collections of small rural villages.”

Until the mid-1980s, only a few skyscrapers disrupted the harmony of the landscape. Today Beijing’s panorama has the look and feel of the ultimate modern city, where, with few exceptions, these “small rural villages” have been supplanted by sterile, towering skyscrapers. This striking change is not limited to external structure; it has also dramatically altered the fabric of human relations.

Physical isolation has led to an increase in crime, destroyed the local sense of solidarity, and contributed to the fragmentation of what were once cohesive family groups. As the distance between home and the workplace has also increased considerably, workers now find themselves devoting what was once valuable family time to exhausting commutes in overcrowded buses or subways.

According to Chen Xitong, a former mayor of Beijing, “the capital is growing increasingly ugly and it is steadily losing its Chinese character. Most of the modern high-rise buildings, with their boring concrete facades, look like dominoes set down in the landscape without plan and without imagination.”


Rapid urbanization is related in part to population growth and rural migration to large cities. In 2008, the world reached an important milestone: For the first time in history more than half of its human population -3.3 billion people- were living in urban areas. By 2030, their number is expected to swell to almost five billion. Many of the new urbanites will be poor and their future will depend, to a large extent, on decisions made now.

The unchecked growth of the cities is also due to migration—both domestic and external—that many countries are experiencing. The common denominators here are rural poverty, the search for better social and employment opportunities, or flight from political persecution and violence.

An example of the last situation is the urbanization process in Colombia. Unlike the urbanization of most other Latin American countries the process in Colombia was stimulated, and to some extent defined, by episodes of violence, which occurred principally in rural areas. Since the 1930s, violence has been an inescapable fact of Colombian civilian life.

As families were uprooted and displaced by successive waves of violence, they fled en masse to the country’s main cities, where the majority among them now resides in poverty-stricken marginal areas. As a result of the violence either witnessed or experienced first-hand, many of Colombia’s young generation have internalized the culture of aggression into which they were born.

Colombia’s case is certainly not unique. More recently, the rural poor in many other countries throughout the world have been uprooted by violence and forced to flee en masse toward the large urban centers.

Climate Refugees

Large migrations will intensify as changing climate conditions will lead to abandonment of flooded or arid and inhospitable environments. This will lead to serious health problems both from the various stresses of the migration process and from the civil strife that could be caused by the chaotic movement of people. Every year, climate change causes the death of approximately 300,000 people, and seriously affects 325 million, according to the Global Humanitarian Forum.

A climate refugee is a person who is forced to relocate, either to a new country or to a new location within their country, due to the consequences of global warming. Sometimes, climate refugees are classified as environmental refugees. The number of environmental refugees will reach 150 million over the next 50 years, according to Professor Norman Myers of Oxford University.

In Africa, desertification and its consequences in agricultural production is displacing increasingly large amounts of people. Approximately 10 million people in Africa have been forced to migrate over the last two decades as a consequence of desertification and environmental degradation.

In addition, most people in Africa move into mostly marginal urban areas because of poverty, environmental degradation, political persecution, and religious strife. In addition, food insecurity and lack of basic services in the rural areas encourage people’s migration into the cities, where they all too often end up living in marginal areas.

These marginal areas, known as “bidonvilles” in French-speaking West Africa, “ishish” in some Arab countries, “kampungs” in Indonesia, “villas miseria” in Argentina, “favelas” in Brazil, “pueblos jóvenes” in Peru, and “ranchitos” in Venezuela, may contain from 30 percent to 60 percent of the population of many Third World cities, according to Worldwatch Institute.

Among Nations

Many governments attempt to discourage migration from rural areas to the cities, but these measures are by and large unsuccessful. Since large cities enjoy preferential treatment in terms of infrastructure and industrial development, they serve as magnets for the “have-nots.”

Regardless of the big city’s allure, many observers now feel that conditions for the ever-growing numbers of urban poor are most likely worse than for their rural counterparts. The true dimensions of this phenomenon remain elusive, according to World Health Organization expert Dr. I. Tabibzadeh, because the poor are either omitted from official statistics or are not considered separately.

Migrations between countries also continue unabated, usually stimulated by similar factors responsible for internal migration. The Latin American country that has produced the greatest number of migrants is Mexico.

Among Mexicans living abroad, 99 percent can be found in the United States, where income opportunities are greater. In the Southern Cone, Argentina is the main destination for migrants from Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia. In Central America and the Caribbean, the United States is the most frequent destination, although there are also significant migratory flows from the Dominican Republic to Venezuela and Puerto Rico and from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.

Several European countries have attracted a large number of Africans and many Africans form sub-Saharan countries have migrated to north-African countries. In addition, the traditional pattern of migration within and from Africa is changing. A male-dominated process is becoming increasingly feminized.

Migration within and from Asian countries is not a new phenomenon. The current trends and characteristics of migration in the region have been shaped by the political and economic changes in recent decades. It is estimated that more than six million migrants are working in East and Southeast Asia, one third of whom are in irregular situation. Until the recent economic crisis, oil-rich Arab countries had attracted large numbers of Asian workers.

The chaotic growth of today’s cities can no longer be ignored. The great challenge is how to improve the quality of urban life by ensuring harmonious growth. Cities can—and should—learn from the experiences of other cities with similar characteristics. This effort requires not only the participation of urban planners but public health and environmental experts, politicians, and fundamentally, the communities themselves. Only when these actions are carried out will it be possible, perhaps, to reach that almost ideal situation heralded by Hippocrates some 2,600 years ago: a balance between the human organism and its environment.

Dr. César Chelala is a public health consultant for several international organizations.

Source – Epoch Times

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