Friday, March 27, 2009


Last fall, UN-Habitat released its annual State of the World's Cities report. As summarized in The Guardian of Oct. 23, '08, the report highlights two trends in particular: (1) growing economic inequality within cities, in both developing and 'developed' countries; and (2) continuing rapid urbanization (and concomitant deruralization) in the global South.

On the first point,
according to The Guardian, the report finds New York "to be the ninth most unequal [city] in the world," while inequality levels in Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., and Miami match those of Nairobi and Abidjan. The most unequal cities are in South Africa, Namibia, and Latin America.

On the second point, the report predicts that 70 percent of the world's population will live in urban areas by 2050, and of that population, well over half will live in Asian cities. Forty-nine new cities have been built in the past 18 years in China alone. "Urban growth rates are highest in the developing world, which absorbs an average [of] 5 million new urban residents a month and is responsible for 95 percent of world urban growth" [my italics]. At the same time, some older cities in the 'developed' world have been losing population as a result of deindustrialization and other factors.

In 2007, the four most populous cities were Tokyo (35.7 million), Mexico City (19 m.), New York-Newark (19 m.), and Sao Paulo (19 m.). In 2025, the report projects that Tokyo will still be number one (with 36.4 million), but numbers 2, 3, and 4 will be two Indian cities -- Mumbai and Delhi -- and Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh), with 26.4, 22.5, and 22 million, respectively. Dhaka, which had 13.5 million in 2007, will nearly double in population by 2025, according to this projection.

[Hat tip: A post of 10/23/08 at Blue Republic of America.]


Anonymous said...

I always knew that there was a high degree of inequality in American cities, but this is news to me. This is an extremely thought-provoking issue on many fronts for me. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

P.S. Thanks to your post, I will go read the UN Report.

LFC said...

Glad the post was of interest. I also found the inequality point esp. telling. Another figure: 35 cities in India now have more than a million people (source: Simon Marks on PBS NewsHour, 12/5/08).

hank_F_M said...


The summaries seem to gloss over several things.

This is part of a process that has been going on since the 18th Century. Improved agricultural technology reduces the need for agricultural workers. The “industrial revolution” produces employment opportunities in the cities. The population migrates. Also the improved agriculture allows larger total population. It has never been a pretty process since it takes several generations to integrate the migrants into urban dwellers. There is the famous quip, after hearing of the awful conditions in the cotton mill in 16th century Britain some asked, “Why do they put up with it?” The answer "The mills have easer work, better conditiosn, better and more reliably pay'. The problem is all in one place to be seen rather than scattered thought out many small villages. people will come to the cities because even so the conditions are better.

The integration will happen. The problem in many cases is helping the integration process without forcing it and how to keep a lid on things until the process completes itself. Forcing as opposed to helping will increase the problems and the possibility of not keeping the lid on.

One of the things about cities is that they are many communities. New York is an assemblage of Neighborhoods (small towns) regional communities (Burroughs) the economic center of the New York/New Jersey area, the economic hub of the US and of the world. But while each of these levels sit on top of each other they could be on opposite sides of the world. The people running Staten Island have Staten Island as an economic base and their economic status is determined by that limit. The people who run world wide organizations have the world to draw on, they are doing much better. While New York is extreme it is true of every city in the world.

This makes questions of equality hard to deal with since people are parts of such diverse groupings. Much more important is dealing with the pockets of extreme poverty that develop.

LFC said...

You're right to distinguish between inequality and levels of poverty. Inequality in Atlanta or in D.C., for example, may be roughly the same as inequality in Nairobi, but that doesn't mean that poor people in D.C. are as poor as poor people in Nairobi (though in some cases, e.g. the homeless population, they may come close.)

One thing I left out of the post was the UN report's emphasis on the role that race continues to play in urban inequality in the U.S. (and some other countries). Much more could be said about this; perhaps I'll try to tackle it later.

Nick said...

Reading about the trend towards urbanisation makes me wonder whether 'megacities' will be as important political actors and spaces for political action as nation-states in the 21st century. Certainly, many world cities now seem as closely linked with one another and their do with their home states.

LFC said...

You raise an interesting issue. One could see this in terms of competition -- will cities rival and/or eventually displace states? The answer to that, I suspect, is not any time soon. On the other hand, world cities are already major actors in the global economy, and their political importance is rising. Cities now have formal links with each other, as you note, institutionalized in forums such as the Asian Network of Major Cities. (Though this network, last I checked, was made up of one city from each of many Asian countries, suggesting that the nation-state framework continues to exert an influence here.)

Anonymous said...

Re: race and poverty, LFC, you might find William Julius Wison's recent book called More than Just Race useful.


LFC said...

N, thanks for the suggestion.