The urban millennium

Posted: 28 July 2006

Sometimes it takes just one human being to tip the scales and change the course of history. In the year 2007, that human being will either move to a city or be born in one. Demographers watching urban trends will mark it as the moment when the world entered a new urban millennium, a period in which, for the first time in history, the majority of the world's people will live in cities, report Rasna Warah and Eduardo Lopez Moreno.

Kibera, Nairobi, the world's biggest slum. Credit: UNEP
The year 2007 will also see the number of slum dwellers in the world cross the one billion mark - when one in every three city residents will live in inadequate housing with no or few basic services. Urban poverty will characterise many cities in the developing world, and urban growth will become virtually synonymous with slum development in some regions.

Asia is already home to more than half of the world's slum population (581 million), followed by sub-Saharan Africa (199 million) and Latin America and the Caribbean (134 million). Sub-Saharan Africa has both the highest annual urban growth rate and the highest annual slum growth rate in the world, 4.58 per cent and 4.53 per cent, respectively, more than twice the world average.

RegionsUrban growth rateSlum growth rateLatin America2.211.28South Asia2.892.20North Africa2.48-0.15Eastern Asia3.392.28South Eastern Asia3.821.34Western Asia2.962.71Sub-Saharan Africa4.584.53Developed world0.750.72Source: UN-HABITAT (2004) Global Urban Observatory

The continued threat of conflict in several African countries is a significant factor in the proliferation of slums in urban areas. The prolonged crisis in southern Sudan, for instance, has led to the mass exodus of rural people to the capital Khartoum, which took in almost half of the more than 6 million internally displaced persons in the country in the late 1990s.

Urban trends

Three important trends characterize the new urban era. Firstly, the biggest cities in the world will be found mainly in the developing world. "Metacities" - massive conurbations of more than 20 million people, above and beyond the scale of megacities - are now gaining ground in Asia, Latin America and Africa. These cities are home to only 4 per cent of the world's population and most have grown at the relatively slow rate of about 1.5 per cent annually. However, the sheer size of these urban agglomerations points to the growth of city-regions and "metropolitanization" which call for more many centres of urban governance and stronger inter-municipal relations. The environmental impact of metacities and megacities on their hinterlands is also a cause for concern in coming decades.

Graph: UN-HABITAT (2004) Slum and urban estimations, by Global Urban Observatory
Graph: UN-HABITAT (2004) Slum and urban estimations, by Global Urban Observatory
Secondly, despite the emergence of metacities, the majority of urban migrants will be moving to small towns and cities of less than one million inhabitants. Already, more than half of the world's urban population lives in cities of fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, and almost one-fifth lives in cities of between 1 and 5 million inhabitants. These intermediate cities are predicted to grow at a faster rate than any other type of city.

Desludging latrine pits in Kibera, Nairobi. Credit: IRC/Madeleen Wegelin
Desludging latrine pits in Kibera, Nairobi. Credit: IRC/Madeleen Wegelin
Desludging latrine pits in Kibera, Nairobi.© IRC/Madeleen Wegelin
Natural population increase, rather than rural-to-urban migration, is a significant factor in urban growth in many regions. However, the relative absence of roads, water supply and communication facilities, in many small and intermediate-sized cities makes these cities less competitive and leads to a lower quality of life for their citizens. Thirdly, cities of the developing world will absorb 95 per cent of urban growth in the next two decades and, by 2030, will be home to almost four billion people, or 80 per cent of the world's urban population. After 2015, the world's rural population is projected to shrink as urban growth intensifies in cities of Asia and Africa, two regions that are set to host the world's largest urban populations in 2030, 2.66 billion and 748 million, respectively.

Urban poverty

The good news is that urbanization can also be a positive force for human development; countries that are highly urbanized tend to have higher incomes, more stable economies, stronger institutions and are better able to withstand the volatility of the global economy.

In both developed and developing countries, cities generate a higher share of gross domestic product than rural areas and provide opportunities for employment and investment. However, despite the enormous potential of cities to create prosperity, the wealth generated by cities does not necessarily lead to a reduction in poverty; on the contrary, in many cities, inequalities between the rich and the poor have grown, as have the sizes and proportions of slum populations.

View of the <em>favelas</em> of Rio de Janeiro© Kita Pedroza/Viva Rio
View of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro© Kita Pedroza/Viva Rio
View of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro© Kita Pedroza/Viva Rio
Although poverty remains mainly a rural phenomenon, urban poverty is becoming a severe, pervasive - and largely unacknowledged - feature of urban life. Large sections of the population in urban areas are suffering from extreme deprivation that is often even more debilitating than that experienced by the rural poor. The findings of the State of the World's Cities Report 2006/7, show that the incidence of disease and mortality is much higher in slums than in non-slum urban areas, and in some cases, such as HIV prevalence, is equal to or even higher than in rural areas.

This UN report is the first to compare data on urban, rural, slum and non-slum areas. Some of the findings show remarkable similarities between slums and rural areas. For instance, in low-income countries, such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nepal and Niger, 4 out of every 10 slum children are malnourished, a rate that is comparable to rural areas of those countries. Similarly, in India slum dwellers suffer slightly more from malnutrition than the rural population of the country. Age pyramids for slum and rural populations in several countries show similar patterns: both groups tend to be younger and generally die sooner than non-slum urban populations, which tend to have the lowest child mortality rates and the highest life expectancy rates.

Sanitation problem

Urban pollution, Africa. Credit: UN-Habitat
Urban pollution, Africa. Credit: UN-Habitat
Urban pollution, Africa.© UN-Habitat
The health of the urban poor is also adversely affected by poor sanitation. Over 25 per cent of the developing world's urban population - or 560 million city residents - lack adequate sanitation. Asia alone accounts for over 70 per cent of this group, mainly because of the large populations of China and India. The report shows that while cities in south and south east Asia have made significant progress in recent years to improve sanitation outreach in urban areas, access lags far behind in sub-Saharan Africa and eastern Asia, where 45 per cent and 31 per cent of the urban population still lacks access to improved sanitation, respectively.

Mass evictions from slum and squatter settlements further blight the lives of the urban poor. Security of tenure is becoming precarious as a result of mass evictions. In cities of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, evictions are are often carried out to make room for large-scale infrastructure or city "beautification" programmes. A global survey in 60 countries found that 6.7 million people had been evicted from their homes between 2000 and 2002, compared with 4.2 million in the previous two years.

Overcrowding, housing located in hazardous areas and the threat of eviction affect the life chances of main slum dwellers, especially in relation to employment. Some studies have found a strong correlation between where people live and their chances of finding a job. One study in France showed that job applicants residing in poor neighbourhoods were less likely to be called for interviews than those who lived in wealthier neighbourhoods. Another study in Rio de Janeiro found that living in a favela (slum) was a bigger barrier to gaining employment than being dark skinned or female - a finding that confirms that "where we live matters" when it comes to health, education and employment.

The report shows that slum dwellers die earlier, experience more hunger, have less education, have fewer chances of employment in the formal sector and suffer more from ill-health than the rest of the inhabitants of cities. Recent data on HIV/AIDS reveals that in various sub-Saharan African countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi, HIV prevalence is significantly higher in urban areas than in rural areas, and is also higher in slums than in non-slum urban areas. Moreover, slum women are particularly at risk, with HIV prevalence rates that are higher than men and rural women.

Success stories

As part of its mandate to assess the performance of countries on the UN Millennium Development Goal slum target - to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum-dwellers by 2020 - UN-HABITAT evaluated the progress of more than 100 countries to see if they were "on track", "stabilizing", "at risk" or "off track" vis-à-vis the slum target. Three criteria were used to rate countries: annual slum growth rate; slum percentage; and slum population.

TransMilenio bus system© Peter Danielsson/WRI
TransMilenio bus system© Peter Danielsson/WRI
TransMilenio bus system© Peter Danielsson/WRI
Some interesting findings emerged: countries that had successfully reduced slum growth rates, slum proportions and slum populations in the last 15 years shared many attributes. The governments of these countries had shown long-term political commitment to improving and preventing slum settlements; many had undertaken progressive pro-poor land and housing reforms to secure the tenure of slum dwellers or to improve their access to basic services; most used domestic resources to boost slum improvements and prevent future slum growth; and a significant number had introduced policies to promote equity.

In many countries, improvements in just one sector, such as sanitation, had a significant impact on slum reduction. In countries such as Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand and Tunisia, the introduction of inclusive policies, land reforms, regularization programmes and a commitment to improve the lives of the urban poor by the top leadership, were key to success. These countries developed either specific slum upgrading and prevention programmes or integrated slum upgrading and prevention as part of their broader poverty reduction programmes. They have done this not only out of social concern, but also to promote economic development. Central governments in these countries have also ensured that investments are made in other sectors, such as education, health, sanitation and transport.

Some low or middle income countries, including Colombia, El Salvador, Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, are starting to stabilise or reverse the trend in slum developments - without waiting for economic growth to address the problem. These countries have managed to prevent slum developments by planning for growing urban populations and expanding economic and employment opportunities for the urban poor. This has been achieved by investing in low-cost, affordable housing for the most vulnerable groups and by introducing pro-poor reforms.

What stands out clearly from this report is that slum formation is neither inevitable nor acceptable. "Running the poor out of town" - through evictions or discriminatory practices - is not the answer: helping the poor to become part of the fabric of urban society is the only long-lasting and sustainable solution to the growing urban poverty. As the developing world becomes more urban and as the locus of poverty shifts to cities, the battle to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals will have to be waged in the world's slums.

Eduardo Lopez Moreno, Chief of UN-HABITAT's Global Urban Observatory, was task manager and one of the principal authors of the State of the World's Cities Report 2006/7. Rasna Warah was the editor and one of the principal authors of the same report.

Related links

To order a copy of The State of the World's Cities Report 2006/7, click here.

United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT)