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close this bookPromoting Sustainable Human Development in Cities of the South: A Southeast Asian Perspective (UNRISD, 2000, 56 p.)
close this folderIII. The Structural Context
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View the documentUnderstanding cities
View the documentDemocratization, decentralization and liberalization

Understanding cities

While in principle LA21 processes can be applied within any community, in practice they have a definite urban orientation (there is a minority of cases involving urban regions - provinces or consortia of local authorities). Under these circumstances, it is important to focus attention on what is meant by an urban place and the ways in which this has been changing in recent years, so as to better understand the local sustainable development planning and management process in context.

It is common knowledge that we live in a rapidly urbanizing world - the population of which was, half a century ago, predominantly living in rural areas, but where today almost half lives in towns and cities. Latin America is already as urbanized as Europe (i.e. almost fully urbanized) and it is only in Asia and Africa that we find countries where the population is still living a predominantly rural life.

The common presumption is that rural people will one day take up their roots and migrate to the city. There are cases of this kind, but urbanization is much more complicated than this. On the one hand, cities grow to a significant degree simply through children being born in them. Where rural - urban migration is a significant factor, it is necessary to understand the complex segmentation of the process - which might include, for example, rural girls taking jobs as maids before returning to get married; young men taking industrial jobs in the agriculturally slack season; or refugee/ethnic groups that have found a particular economic niche. Trying to incorporate these - and many other "poor" groups - into a local planning process can be difficult when they consider themselves to be only temporary residents or are ostracized or otherwise hidden by better established, more powerful groups.

The mode of urbanization and the changes in urban morphology are also important to understanding how to involve people in the planning process. Many towns and cities have been towns and cities for a long time and may be growing fast, slowly or not at all. Other urban areas suddenly appear, sometimes very rapidly, as a consequence of contingencies: changing boundaries, tourist developments or the location of large industries attracting a new workforce are examples. The appearance over a period of less than 20 years of a whole series of new urban places in the Pearl River Delta, following the Chinese government's decision to promote particularly Hong Kong inward investment is an extreme - but by no means unique - example (Lo and Yeung, 1995). And a significant addition to urban development is simply through the growth of villages that become towns and then cities without the local population ever moving.

Furthermore, the cultural impacts of globalization, discussed further below, are leading to changes in outlook and social praxis even in remote rural areas that essentially orient the population to urban living habits, multiply the commercial links with cities, facilitating the transition of rural populations into urban life, increasingly in terms of possessing two homes (even when one is no more than a room in a rooming house); improved transport infrastructure and cheap bus fares are reinforcing this.

In recent years there have been rapid changes in the manner of urbanization of rural migrants and of older residents of informal settlements. Different dynamics prevail in different regions and specific cities need to be looked at from a local perspective. Nevertheless, in the past greater numbers of the poor were generally to be found in central city tenements and informal settlements. Today most of the "urban" poor reside in, or a little way beyond, the urban periphery, sometimes in vastly expanded "villages" (in Latin America, barrios and favelas) that are, in extreme cases, cities in their own right.

The implications of these changes in the processes of urbanization and social interaction - and of the fluidity and sheer indeterminacy of life decisions among the poor in particular - need to be taken into consideration in designing planning systems for sustainable development. What emerges is the inadequacy of the approaches taken so far to encompass the processes framing people's lives. Instead there has generally been an assumption that things are as in the past with residents (stakeholders) standing firm to be counted and incorporated into a planning process.

Nevertheless, in many towns and cities, established neighbourhoods - informal, middle income and affluent - contain settled populations that are potential participants in a more participatory approach to local planning and management. A major problem is the degree of segregation and isolation, particularly of the middle and upper classes. In such areas where there appear to be few immediate environmental problems (clean and green streets, clean water supply, etc.), but where the problem of less sustainable lifestyles (high consumption of resources) is all too evident, it is generally difficult to capture the interest of citizens to participate in planning exercises. Nor are the more affluent citizens very interested in assuming any kind of equality with the poor in a decision - making process.

Thus in practice the process needs to use considerable ingenuity in order to draw people from all walks of life into a common planning process. It is also necessary to ensure that the territory within which the planning process is being conducted is one in which sustainable development can be considered with some hope of eventually making it a reality; this points to city and hinterland as needing to be planned within the same framework.