We should probably spare a thought for city councils and urban planners in developing countries. If projections by globally respected institutions such as the World Bank, and UN-Habitat and others are anything to go by, governance in big cities is going to get even more tedious because the metropolises are about to explode in size and complexity.
The trends in human habitation over the recent decades has largely been from rural areas to urban centres, and that is not about to change. Now, half of the human population lives in cities and this process has picked up over the last 60 years. Over the last decade, Ho Chi Minh City has tripled in size, while Accra has done the same in 15 years.
Eat your heart out, Julius Ceaser. Rome, at the time of its famous leader, was home to only a million people. India, for instance, would have to create two Romes of that size every other week as two million people now move into its cities every week. The government of Rwanda needs to build a new Kigali every nine years.
Matter of fact, experts in the field say they expect several cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America to grow by a whopping 10 per cent over the next 20 years. So, government officials would have to look for ways to accommodate these people – or they are destined to govern cities attached to vast slums.
Much of this is already happening. While governments hide their heads in the sand and pretend that urban squatters do not exist – unless the land they occupy suddenly becomes too important to leave them on it – the growth in informal settlements is steady and inexorable.
Most city planning is lagging behind the people, who are creating suburbs by themselves. But speakers at the World Bank conference on land and poverty warn that this is costly to the cities and environmentally unsustainable. For instance, the disorganised sprawl puts more pressure on land and could lead to conflict with farming communities already living on that land.
So, what is to be done? According to Shlomo Angel of New York University, cities have to prepare for their expansion and governments need to devise ways to make land accessible and affordable for people coming into the city. Or else they should be prepared to bear the cost.
Studies show that it is nine times harder to develop a slum community after its occupation than before, says Pedro Ortiz of the World Bank. “The cost of razing slums is much greater than preventing them from building up in the first place,” he said. “The battle for sustainable development will either be won or lost in the cities.”