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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

Lopsided modernization and the urban poor

By Ignacy Sachs and Dana Silk

If the globe's current trends in urbanization continue, by the year 2010-just one generation from now - the poor of the teeming, overcrowded third world cities will gain a dubious distinction: they will become the new majority among the world's population, displacing the rural poor.

The backlog of unattended urban needs, point out Ignacy Sachs and Dana Silk, is so overwhelming and the inflow of people into third world cities is so great that it is simply impossible to hope to solve the problem by providing "more of the same." New urban development strategies are called for, based on social innovation.

The following article is excerpted from the new book by Professors Sachs and Silk, Food and Energy: Strategies for Sustainable Development, published by the United Nations University Press. Their volume is based on the research findings of the UNU's five-year Food-Energy Nexus Programme (FEN) (1983-88) which was directed by Dr. Sachs. He is Director of CIRED, the International Research Centre on Environment and Development in Paris, France; Dr. Silk is a scientist working at CIRED. - Editor

Urbanization is by far the most important social transformation of our times. In 1800 no more than 3 per cent of the world's population lived in cities, but by the year 2000 urban dwellers will outnumber the rural population.

The consequences of such a massive population shift are assessed in diametrically opposed fashion by the supporters and the foes of large cities. The former emphasize the civilizing role of cities, the high productivity achieved by industries and modern services thanks to their unprecedented degree of concentration, the amenities of urban areas (in sharp contrast to the apparent drudgery of rural areas and smaller centres), and the multiple opportunities for work and self-realization offered by their inhabitants.

The foes of urban life insist on the parasitic character of the city, diverting and draining for its own advantage the economic surplus produced by the countryside. They point to the deep disruption of the urban environment with the attendant health hazards, the often appalling housing and working conditions of the urban poor, the endemic unemployment and underemployment, and the social anonymity resulting from sub-human living conditions.

Some experts have celebrated cities as prime movers of economic development while others have been much more subtle. Whatever the wonders achieved by cities with the economic surplus that they have been able to concentrate, one should not forget that primitive accumulation was largely through extracting this surplus from the peasantry of today's industrialized countries and their colonies.

At stake for third world countries is the opportunity to transform their condition of "lateness" into an advantage. Modern science and technology associated with a critical analysis of the impasses of industrialized societies should allow third world countries to find alternative patterns of urbanization and to implement them at far less social, economic and ecological cost.

The "Real" Economy of Cities

The ways in which market and non-market economies combine are quite complex. The informal sector, for example, is often referred to as "hidden" or "invisible." A better term would be "statistically unrecorded," as most of the activities in the market segments encompassed by these names are anything but hidden - they are generally conducted out in the open. None of these term really offers a suitable framework to describe the latticework of the real economy.

A closer look at the real economy of the city - a diverse mixture made up of interconnected markets (both legal and criminal), non-market household activities, subsidies, distribution of goods, and provision of services - shows that many of the resources not accounted for in official statistics are being intensively used by people to build their homes, produce food for self-consumption or sale, and transform recycled waste into saleable commodities.

A Bootstrap Operation

What will happen now, in times of crisis? For the bureaucrats from the ministries of planning or finance, the answer is clear: austerity budgets, exacerbated by the requirements of foreign debt servicing, means that so-called "non-productive" investments must be cut to the bone. But difficult as it is, the situation is not entirely stalemated so long as there are idle, underutilized or dilapidated physical and human resources that might be used to produce socially desirable goods and services, without violating the prevailing budgetary restrictions.

However, self-reliance does not necessarily mean self-sufficiency. The complexity of the modern world cannot be tackled by decomposing it into an archipelago of self-sufficient communities, be they rural, urban, or rurban. But self-reliance in moral, political, and intellectual terms makes people resourceful and confident. They assume their situation instead of taking a passive approach. Looking around them, they end up by identifying resources in their own backyard that could be exploited to bring some relief to their plight.

What Is a City?

Economists have tended to look at cities as the site of many enterprises, whose concentration creates both positive and negative results, but requires, in any event, a costly infrastructure. Human ecologists have been advocating, without much success to date, the study of cities considered as ecological systems. Most of the studies on urban systems conducted within the Man and the Biosphere Programme of UNESCO deal with the impact of cities on the natural environment and its food-producing systems, or they describe in detail the energy flows inside the city.

Luxury towers facing shacks in Bombay, India

The approach which we followed in the Food-Energy Nexus (FEN) Project of the United Nations University was somewhat different. For analytical purposes, the city was considered as a predominantly artificially created ecosystem - with paradigmatic analogies in relation to natural ecosystems. Such a perspective emphasizes the actual and potential interrelations and complementarities between different human activities conducted in the cities.

Turning Waste to Wealth

Fortunately, in most cities the backlog of untapped opportunities for transforming waste into wealth is very large indeed. A city should thus be regarded as an ecosystem with its own potential of latent, underutilized, misused or wasted resources.

Complex and diverse, urban environments combine elements of natural and entirely artificial environments. They juxtapose modern factories, lavish residential quarters, and suburban express-ways with decrepit sweatshops, sprawling slums, and antiquated public transportation. The same city can provide an array of environments for different groups, a multiplicity of ecological niches ranging from cozy to uncomfortable, from healthy to filthy, from safe to dangerous, from friendly to hostile. These are multi-layer towns, often with a marked spatial separation - garden cities for the rich, shanties for the poor - resulting in what amounts to an apartheid society.

Urban Poor: The Worst of Both Worlds

It should be remembered that the urban poor are the main victims of environmental disruption. In addition to living in conditions of squalor subject to the pollution of poverty, they are also the most exposed to the pollution generated by the lavish consumption patterns of the urban elite, including the increasing affluence of the middle class.

The bridge for many is provided by the TV soap operas with their consumerist message: watching them from a shantytown is fairly surrealistic. It forces one to think about the latent explosion of the situation in the dual cities of the third world produced by lopsided modernization.

Urban Population by Major Regions - 1960 - 2025













Less developed






More developed












Latin America






North America






East Asia






South Asia
























Source: UN Population Division