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Corruption and social unrest: coping with rapid urbanisation

The developing world is undergoing a revolution in rapid, unstructured and unregulated urbanisation as rural populations flock to ever growing mega-cities. They’re looking to access better education, health care, employment and a new future for their children.

James Kavanagh MRICS, Director RICS Land Group, RICS
13 September 2017

In many ways, some developing countries are becoming victims of their own economic success with new opportunities for their populations, increased agricultural productivity and better infrastructure. This is across the board of health, social care and education, transport, energy and telecommunications.

With urban growth comes pressure: pressure on scarce resources, pressure on creaking urban systems (including waste and transport), pressure on health care, pressure on land and property (formal and informal), and pressure on energy supply.

These pressures are not just applicable to the developing world but also to the developed. So how are we as professionals going to help our urban spaces deal with this potent brew of competing interests and pressures? Are we at a tipping point? Is this a perfect storm of uncontrollable urban processes outside of any form of spatial planning or enforcement?

A major global risk

Rapid urbanisation has been identified as a major global "risk" by both the United Nations and World Economic Forum (WEF) – with the WEF noting that cities can act as points of risk convergence across numerous areas.

Urban areas, especially the "zone of contact" between urban and rural, are seeing huge population shifts with all of the related environmental impact. The Indian city of Surat suffered a public health disaster in the 1990s due to uncontrolled urbanisation combined with a lack of sanitation. This led to an outbreak of plague. However, intelligent spatial planning and better public health infrastructure has improved its position to one of the healthiest places to live in India.

Almost 700 million urban dwellers currently lack adequate sanitation. This means diseases that no longer result in deaths in developing countries — think cholera, typhoid, tapeworms and parasites — are still prevalent. One aid agency has discovered that the best way to improve children’s educational prospects in developing world mega-cities is to provide worm tablets rather than school books.

Climate change resilience, affordable and sustainable housing, and appropriate building standards also have to be brought into the mix. Urban areas can be epicentres of far-reaching change, whirlwinds of activity and learning, and drivers of change.  But if they’re uncontrolled, they can also act as a distillation of enormous risk and potential instability.

Where does revolution start? Always in the cities.

Urbanisation in figures

The figures are stark and unremitting in their impact; in 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population lived in urban areas. The world has already passed the pivotal point where this figure has risen to more than 50%. In 2050, city dwellers are expected to account for more than two-thirds of the world’s population.

Africa and Asia will be the fastest urbanising regions with the urban population projected to reach 56% in Africa and 64% in Asia by 2050 — they currently stand at 40% and 48% respectively.

40% of the world’s urban expansion is taking place in informal settlements, including favelas, slums and shanty towns. The lack of basic infrastructure and tenure security can create an environment of constant fear and instability. After all, why invest in your dwelling or small business if you could be evicted at any moment?

The social and economic stability attached to the formalisation of urban land and property rights should not be underestimated. Nearly 70% of the global population is living outside of a "formalised" ownership rights system. This is an issue of titanic importance and one that RICS, World Bank, UN Habitat and others, such as USAID, Department for International Development and Kadastre, have been working on in collaboration by developing global standards.

The staggering economics

It is when we start to look at the economics of urban infrastructure that the figures become truly staggering. To provide adequate global infrastructure for electricity, road and rail transport, the OECD estimates that telecommunications and water will cost approximately $71 trillion by 2030 — this represents 3.5% of forecasted global GDP.

Most of this investment will be needed in emerging and developing economies. The Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa estimates that Africa will need to invest up to $93 billion annually until 2020 for both capital investment and maintenance. Currently only $45 billion is financed, which leaves an infrastructure gap of $48 billion per year.

Public-private partnerships are popular solutions to help provide the shortfall in direct aid or government finance which brings into play the spectre of corruption.

Technology has long been lauded as a potential solution to many of these urbanisation issues, and it does have an important role to play. Increased urban efficiencies through the effective use of smart city technologies will help. In many ways, these efficiencies are quite mundane, from the better use of traffic systems to the more effective use of waste management.

In the developed world, smart cities can help us get the most from creaking Victorian infrastructure. Over 20% of London’s water is lost through leakage and the tube is as old as it looks.

Infrastructure building blocks

Again, essential infrastructure building blocks have to be in place. In the case of smart cities, these are energy, possibly localised energy production, and telecommunication, mainly bandwidth.

Citizens can have as many mobile devices as they want but no bandwidth, no wifi, no access, no big data, equals no smart city. Geospatial information, connecting BIM into the wider geography of a city, 3D modelling and advanced mapping of everything, from people, to green space use to transport, are all gaining traction.

Urbanisation is not an inherently bad thing. Cities are hubs of human civilisation and economic growth, but this growth needs to be managed and effectively planned. Technology can help, as can capacity development amongst professionals, planning enforcement, and formalising land and property rights.

However, the ingredients exist for a perfect storm of unregulated urbanisation, disease, social unrest, corruption, unfettered speculation, increasing density, and environmental degradation leading to urban breakdown.

Organisations, such as WEF and the UN, are right to highlight the knock-on effect of urbanisation risks across a raft of global risk, but this is one storm that we can deal with. Surveyors and other professionals such as urban planners, architects and engineers are needed now more than ever.

Urbanisation will not wait until we’re ready to do something, we have to tackle the fight head on and prepare for an urban global future.

The World Built Environment Forum is a global network of professionals combining knowledge, skills and resources to shape the environment global populations need