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close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 13, Number 3, 1991(UNU, 1991, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentCities in the 21 st century - The urban half
View the documentThe pathology of the city
View the documentNew strategies for urban poverty
View the documentLopsided modernization and the urban poor
View the documentUrban transport and urban growth
View the documentThe hub of Japan
View the documentThe land game
View the documentShaping Tokyo for the future
View the documentSeoul: Still a metropolis in the making
View the documentAsia's growing urban rings
View the document"A giant supermarket..." - Is there anything good about mega-cities?
View the documentThe emerging world city system
View the documentUNU update

Asia's growing urban rings

By T.G. McGee

The image of millions of rural peasant farmers and their families pouring from the hinterlands into the glitter of downtown Jakarta, Seoul or Manila, argues Terence McGee, is a very misleading one. More likely, the new arrivals have come from the part rural, part urban rings surrounding the central cities, where they were engaged in a mix of agricultural and industrial activity.

These regions - which he calls "desakotas" (or village-towns) - pose new analytical challenges for Asia's urban planners, who have been ill-served, he says, by the "mental baggage of concepts and ideas" that have grown out of the Western urbanizing experience. Professor McGee is Director of the Institute of Asian Research, at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. The following is taken from his presentation to the Tokyo mega-cities conference. - Editor

I would throw out the challenge that the body of Western-derived urban theory should be evaluated carefully as it is applied to the experience of urbanization in Asia. Very different sets of conditions are operating in Asia today than those which occurred in the Western industrialized countries in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The conventional wisdom on the transition from rural to urban society seems to me to be inadequate in three respects. First, it is too narrow in its view that the widely-accepted spatial separation of rural and urban activities wilt persist. Second, it is off in its assumption that the rural to urban movement is an inevitable result of economic advantages resulting from urban population concentrations. (In many parts of Asia, the population densities in the countryside are similar to those of the urban areas which they surround.)

Third, the western paradigm of urban transition is based on the historical experience of that process as it occurred in Western Europe and North America in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is not necessarily transferable to Asia's urbanization process. Among other historical factors, the uneven incorporation of the Asian countries into a world economic system - from the 15th century onwards - created divergent patterns of urbanization, reflecting different historical interactions between Asian countries and the world system.

Needs of the "Urban Revolution"

A major question must be whether Asian countries can experience a structural transformation in their economies which is associated with an "urban revolution," and the successful absorption of the labour force into their urban economies during this transition.

Various projections make it clear that during the closing two decades of the 20th century, urban growth rates in Asia cannot accommodate the overall population increases or the shift of people from rural areas - suggesting that population growth will continue in rural areas.

There are, of course, major regional differences. In Asian countries like Japan or Taiwan, the urbanization process is largely completed. In others - for example, Thailand - the situation is changing so rapidly that it is hard to know where to place them. Still another category are those countries where the rates of population increase remain high, urbanization levels are changing little, and the proportion of the labour force in agriculture has remained fairly constant. Finally, there is China, whose patterns of economic development and urbanization are different from the rest of Asia - particularly in terms of the fluctuations in levels of urbanization.

Calcutta, India © Yoshiaki Nagashima/PPS

Off-Farm Employment

In studying this "mix" of urban-rural interaction, several points should be underlined:

· There is little doubt that significant improvements in agricultural technology and production - together with the opening up of new land and the improvement of old land - have led to increased agricultural productivity in many Asian nations. But this has not been sufficient to prevent an increase in the absolute number of people in the poverty sector, even though the proportion may be falling.

· A shift often ignored in many analyses is the movement of labour from farm to non-farm sectors within rural areas. While there are serious statistical problems here, most data suggest that approximately 20 to 30 per cent of rural workers throughout Asia may be regarded as employed in non-agricultural activities as a major source of income - and that probably that proportion is increasing. The importance of off-farm employment is well-illustrated by the experience of Japan, Taiwan and the Republic of Korea; the growth of off-farm employment to some extent parallels overall economic development.

Jakarta, Indonesia © David M. Hayes/PPS

Nature of Rural Industries

The nature of the growth in opportunities for earning off-farm income is also illuminating. Structurally, rural non-farm activities are dominated by manufacturing. Within that sector, tobacco and beverage manufacturing appear to be the most important in the rural industries in Malaysia (61.7 per cent) and India (47.5 per cent). Textile and footwear manufacture is more dominant in Bangladesh (58.2 per cent), Pakistan (39.6 per cent) and the Philippines (46.4 per cent).

The service sector also appears to be of growing importance in the rural economies of South and South-East Asian countries. In some instances, this appears to be a "low productivity" type of service occupation. In the Philippines, for example, there are indications that the informal sector - such as small-scale trading and domestic and personnel services - form an important segment of the rural non-agricultural sector. In a country like Sri Lanka, where free education is available, educated rural poor seek government-related service employment.

While this growth of rural non-agricultural activities is not the only factor influencing the patterns of urbanization and labour force absorptions, it is a very important factor in the Asian context. It is important to emphasize that the proximity to urban centres is a major factor increasing non-agricultural incomes in rural households. It might even be argued that such forces are slowing the process of rural-urban transition - by "holding" populations in areas defined as "rural." But in my view these holding areas are rapidly becoming giant urban regions.

In many ways, the traditional Western rural-urban paradigm - with its clearly demarked boundaries between "country" and "city" - confuses urbanization and labour force questions in Asia. Let me argue here for a new set of definitions of spatial configurations in and around major urban areas. In particular, I would like to focus on those lands stretching along the linear corridors between large city cores, in which there is an intense mixture of agricultural and non-agricultural activities - a region which I have labelled, "desakota." (Desakota is a coined Indonesian term from the two words, kota (town) and desa (village), originally adopted after discussions with Indonesian social scientists. It reflects my belief that there is a need to look for terms and concepts in the languages of third world countries which reflect the empirical reality of their societies. - TGM)

Share of Off-Farm Income in East Asian Farm Families













Republic of Korea




The Desakotas

These regions - at one and the same time rural and urban areas - are characterized by large populations engaged in small-holder cultivations (mostly rice). Now engaged in many non-agricultural practices, they were previously largely agricultural. There is now a great mix of occupations - often in the same families. One person may commute to work as a clerk, another engages in farming, a third in industry, and a fourth in the retailing in the desakota zone.

These zones are generally characterized by an extreme fluidity and mobility of populations. The availability of cheap transport, such as two-stroke motorbikes, buses and trucks has facilitated relatively quick movement over longer distances. Thus these zones are characterized both by commuting to the larger urban centres as well as by intense movement of people and goods within the zone. They tend to have an intense mixture of land-use with agriculture, cottage-industry, industrial estates, suburban development and other uses existing side by side.

Negative and Positive Aspects

This intense land-use mix can have both negative and positive aspects. On the one hand, the waste of industrial activity can pollute and destroy agricultural land - these zones, on the whole, are much more intensively used than those of the central metropolitan area. On the other, the desakota zones have provided opportunities for increased participation by females in non-agricultural labour freeing them from their traditional field tasks.

I think the implications of the desakota zones are important for the future of Asian urbanization. Such zones undoubtedly are productive, catalytic regions for economic growth. At the same time, such regions can be extraordinarily difficult to handle. The mixture of activities often creates serious environmental, transportational and infrastructural problems - and particularly if such regions are as part of the "conventional" city planning mind-set. But their mixed, decentralized and small-scale economic organizations offer exciting prospects. The challenge to urban planners is how to take advantage of the positive aspects of these new sorts of urban rings, while controlling their negative ones.