Urban ecology & the World Urban Forum – Planet of Slums?

In 1978 the first meeting of UN Habitat occurred in Vancouver. Thirty years later, Un Habitat’s World Urban Forum runs from June 19th-23rd 2006 in Vancouver. During the time between these meetings the world’s urban population has grown rapidly, in particular in developing countries. Both these trends can be seen in a last of the world’s biggest cities in 1975 and 2005.

Largest cities 1975 Population (Millions) Largest cities 2005 Population (Millions)
Tokyo, Japan 26.6 Tokyo, Japan 35.3
New York-Newark, USA 15.9 Mexico City, Mexico 19
Shanghai, China 11.4 New York-Newark, USA 18.5
Mexico City, Mexico 10.7 Mumbai, India 18.3
Osaka-Kobe, Japan 9.8 Sao Paulo, Brazil 18.3
Sao Paulo, Brazil 9.6 Delhi, India 15.3
Buenos Aires, Argentina 9.1 Calcutta, India 14.3
Los Angeles, USA 8.9 Buenos Aires, Argentina 13.3
Paris, France 8.6 Jakarta, Indonesia 13.2
Beijing, China 8.5 Shanghai, China 12.7

In 1975, 5 of the largest cities were in developing countries, in 2005, 80%. In 1978, about 1/3 of the world’s population lived in cities, today it is 2/3. Indeed most of the world’s net population growth in coming decades is expected to occur in developing world cities.

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, Under-Secretary-General and executive director of UN-HABITAT, reviewing Mike Davis’ book Planet of Slums identifies the vulnerability of slums:

Slum dwellers are more vulnerable than most to hazards such as volcanos, floods, earthquakes, landslides, fires and road traffic accidents. Their health is constantly under threat from inadequate sanitation and low-quality drinking water. As Davis writes: “The most extreme health differentials are no longer between towns and countrysides, but between the urban middle classes and the urban poor.” This conclusion is echoed in the State of the World’s Cities report, which describes how the poor are forced to pay an “urban penalty” that encompasses poor health, early death and vulnerability to both natural and human-made disasters.

UN Habitat has released State of the World’s Cities Report 2006/7 (which annoyingly isn’t available on the web). From a BBC article Report reveals global slum crisis

Slum-dwellers who make up a third of the world’s urban population often live no better – if not worse – than rural people, a United Nations report says.

Worst hit is Sub-Saharan Africa where 72% of urban inhabitants live in slums rising to nearly 100% in some states.

Some states, the report notes, have already taken significant action to improve conditions, notably in Latin America where about 31% of urban people are classified as living in slums (figures for 2005) – down from 35% in 1990.

Of the urban population of South Asia, 57% live in slums though this is down on the 1990 figure of nearly 64%.

A slum is defined by UN Habitat as a place of residence lacking one or more of five things: durable housing, sufficient living area, access to improved water, access to sanitation and secure tenure.

Slums have existed in what is now the developed world since the Industrial Revolution and 6% of its current urban population also fall under Habitat’s definition.

However, the growth in slums is unprecedented, Habitat finds, and the nature of the problem has also changed.

Dr Tibaijuka told journalists that urbanisation in itself was not the problem as it drove both national output and rural development.

“History has shown that urbanisation cannot be reversed,” she continued.

“People move to the cities not because they will be better off but because they expect to be better off.”

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) has a set of resources – Slum Cities – on the state of urbanization in the developing world, including articles on Bombay, Cairo, and an interview with Mike Davis, along with a good set of internet links. They are also have a variety of special coverage of WUF.

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