Cities and urban poverty

Urban Age

Today, 33% of city dwellers live in slums. By 2050 half of the world’s population will live in slums. “How can a Brazilian environmental consultant not be specialised in forests?” Most Europeans I come across immediately associate environmental issues in Brazil with the Amazon. Since I came to London to do a Masters’ degree at LSE, I always have to explain over and over that over 75% of the Brazilian population live in cities and that the environmental problems of cities are as important as those in the Amazon. Now, it has become easier to respond. On 6 June the book “Living in the Endless City” was launched in London. From the introductory chapter, the links between the environment and cities are set-out. Besides the fact that 75% of carbon emissions come from cities, the book’s 423 pages also reflect on issues such as municipal waste, public transport, access to water, sanitation and housing standards. Despite its size (and weight), it is worth reading. The book brings not only pieces from internationally renowned authors but also an amazing range of graphics, photographs and comparative tables.

This is the second volume of the series “Urban Age”. The first book took six years to write and focused on six cities: New York, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Berlin. This one took only three years and focuses in on three megacities: Istanbul, Mumbai and São Paulo. This is a very good source for those working in the area, or simply interested in the topic. Besides the essays, the book has numerous statistics about the nine cities, including:

  • Energy use (kWh/capita): 1,954 in São Paulo, 6,603 in New York, 579 in Mumbai and 4,539 in London.
  • Daily water consumption (litres/capita):  185 in São Paulo, 607 in New York, 90 in Mumbai and 324 in London.
  • Homicides per 100,000 habitants: 21 in São Paulo, 6.3 in New York, 3 in Mumbai and 2.2 in London.
  • Tube ticket prices (US $): 1.6 in São Paulo, 2.3 in New York, 0.2 in Mumbai and 7.1 in London.

In addition to revealing striking correlations between city growth and the environment, the authors also pose an alert about the changes in the world’s poverty profile. The number of urban poor has risen by 50 million from 1993 to 2002. Today, 33% of city dwellers live in slums, by 2050 half of the world’s population will live in slums. This means that there is a need to better understand the impacts of urban poverty in order to adapt public policies and international development funding, which previously were focused on rural poverty alleviation.

The authors go on to discuss new ways of social interaction in the face of climate change-led natural disasters. In the 2005 floods in Mumbai, for example, the slum dwellers left their houses to rescue the rich in their cars and brought them back to their homes in the slums to wait until the water subsided. Cities will need more than only solidarity to adapt to climate change, however, and one should not undermine the importance of such interactions.

At the launch event at LSE, Wolfgang Nowak, Alfred Herrhausen Society Director, highlighted that in the next decade, we should particularly look out for Africa’s urbanisation, an area not very well researched so far. In contrast to the urbanisation seen in Japan in the 50s, Corea in the 60s and China in the last decades, African rural dwellers often move to the cities without the dream job in industry and without the prospects of short-term employment. They often go straight to the slums. A reflection of this trend is that the indicators for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Africa are declining, rather than improving. Today, 80% of Africa’s economy is informal and 65% of the population lives in slums. In the next 15 years, the urban population will double. How to deal with a continent that will double its population without industrialisation is a question that is yet to be answered.

The task of understanding current trends in urbanization is as endless as the endless city. Increasingly, initiatives are emerging to take a deeper look at such trends and what this means to the various stakeholders involved, i.e. not only policymakers and academics but also the private sector, who feed the city. Thinking of this, PwC has broadened its work on cities with the launch of Cities of Opportunities. Now anyone can tailor the comparison of the 26 cities included in the study according to his/her own interest, choosing not only the cities one wants to compare but also the comparison criteria.

Since we are in the Information Age, as well as in the Urban Age, both publications have websites with not only appealing data but also videos and interviews with experts in the field. Here you can check the full video of the debates at the book launch (2 hours in total). Those who don’t have enough time for that can watch a short video with Ricky Burdett, Architecture and Urban Development Professor and Director of the Urban Age Programme at LSE.

I believe a picture speaks 1,000 words, so I chose to end this post with an image from Joan Bendiksen, the Danish photographer responsible for the award-winning photo documentary “The Places We Live”, where he photographed the life of people in four wall dwellings in slums in Caracas, Nairobi, Mumbai and Jakarta.

Key: Dharavi, Mumbai, The Places We Live (2008)

*Note: this blog was first published at PwC Sustainability Blogs

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