Urbanization and Environment Essay

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Urbanization, or the process by which cities grow, is one of the most important geographic phenomena in the world today. This is because the proportion of the world’s population living in urban settlements is growing at a rapid rate, and many of the most significant economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental processes are increasingly occurring within and between the growing numbers of cities in the world today.

According to the United Nations (UN), by 2003, there were already 372 cities of a million or more people, 39 cities with over five million residents, and 16 cities over 10 million. Projections for the future suggest that, in 30 years, about 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities, though what defines a “city” and “urban” is subject to debate, because different countries use very different definitions. Still, even the most conservative estimates suggest that the world’s urban population will grow from 2.86 billion in 2000 to 4.98 billion by 2030. Future projections suggest that, by 2030, there will be 500 cities with more than 1 million residents, 50 cities with over five million residents, and 20 cities over 10 million. Thus, we are living in an increasingly urbanized world with larger and larger urban populations.

Global Trends

While all parts of the world will become increasingly urbanized, there is a striking difference in the trends and projections on a regional basis. In certain parts of the world, like in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, urban growth is taking place at a dramatic pace. In these regions, many of the largest cities are growing at annual rates between 4 and 7 percent, which means that they will double in size in only 10 to 18 years. For the most part, urban growth in these regions is a consequence of internal migration by massive numbers of rural residents seeking a better life in urban areas, as agricultural development problems persist, and cities become the engines of economic growth.

In other parts of the world, particularly in the largest cities of North America, Europe, and Latin America, there are strong indications that metropolitan growth rates have been slowing down. Of course, many of the countries in these regions already have high levels of urbanization; according to their own national definitions, between 75 and 90 percent of the population live in urban areas, so rates of urban growth are likely to be slower.

Even so, there is evidence to suggest that the largest cities in these regions are beginning to grow less rapidly, and in some cases, to lose their populations to midand small-sized cities. One case in point: Almost all the cities in Latin America with a million or more inhabitants, despite continued increases in the absolute number of residents, have had much slower population growth rates in the past two decades, including Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. So despite the fact that cities like Sao Paulo and Mexico City are still among the largest cities in the world, midand small-sized cities have begun to grow very rapidly, gaining population both from large urban centers and from rural areas. The same process is being repeated in North America and Europe as well.

Four main factors have prompted the slowing down of growth in many of the world’s largest cities. First of all, governments have begun to employ deliberate decentralization policies because the unequal allocation of people and resources in large cities produces serious problems and regional unbalance. Second, many industrial plants have moved out of larger cities into smaller cities either by policy or to take advantage of cheaper land and labor. Third, improvements in telecommunication and transportation technologies have further increased the dispersion of manufacturing factories and residences away from principal cities. Finally, there is an overall trend toward suburbanization and population deconcentration, where low-density, ex-urban settlements, with their own shopping malls, factories, office parks, and entertainment facilities, predominate. Thus, the vast majority of new urban growth in North America, Europe, and Latin America has begun to, and will continue to occur in midand small-sized cities.

Social Polarization

According to the UN, no matter where urban growth occurs, the economic contributions of cities are, and will continue to be, critical. Urban-based economic activities account for more than 50 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in all countries and up to 80 percent in more urbanized countries in Latin America, or more in Europe. Thus, cities and towns are not only the loci of production, but they are also the loci of the most important impacts of globalization and, hence, will be the places of change and expectations for the future.

Yet, ironically, today’s cities are marked by social polarization, which may unwittingly place the economic and social futures of cities at risk. Social inequality is an integral and inevitable part of everyday life. In fact, in most cities today, this social inequality is actually on the rise. Many scholars argue that these trends are not merely incidental, but are inscribed as part of the global economy where the prosperity of the elite rests on the exploitation of the poor.

One manifestation of this social polarization is the fact that today’s cities are characterized by great inequalities in income distribution, with the richest 10 percent of the population often earning 30-40 percent of the total income, and the poorest 50 percent earning less than 25 percent of the total income. With few exceptions, between 1960 and 2000, the majority of countries experienced a continued concentration of income within their populations. While absolute incomes for all groups have grown, according to the UN, the population in the top quintile has grown much faster than those in the bottom two quintiles.

This rising inequality in income has in turn created markedly different housing situations for the rich and the poor in cities. While many of the richest residents separate themselves in gated communities, the poorest residents live in homogeneously poor public housing or informal housing communities. A long-term housing crisis has emerged in many cities of the world, which means many of the poorest families settle land illegally and build their own homes informally, especially on the fringes of major urban centers. A vast majority of these families hold no legal title, and many live in housing that is considered substandard or even unfit for settlement.

While land title regularization programs and access to more efficient formal markets have improved conditions for some, for many, the only option for affordable housing remains the informal sector. Thus, access to low-cost, quality land and housing is a major concern for most cities across the globe, where population growth and rapid urbanization predominate.

Environmental Distress

Most cities are also undergoing severe environmental distress. This distress is caused by a lack of resources, inadequate attention, and inefficient management practices. As a result, a variety of environmental problems exist in cities today. These include problems involving:

  • Public land management: The constant reduction of green areas, which causes an excessive impermeability of soil and an increase in critical areas of flooding. The illegal occupation of watersheds is also causing groundwater contamination.
  • Public transportation planning: Inadequate public transportation alternatives, including the expansion of subway networks and bus lines, means that the percentage of car users continues to rise, which leads to air, noise, and water pollution.
  • Air quality: The lack of strict practical and short-term measures and policies, along with enforcement of environmental standards, causes overall high levels of industrial air pollution. A highly motorized and congested transport system also results in high levels of particulate air pollution.
  • Sewerage: The delay in the completion of sewage master plans means that a significant percentage of residents are not connected to the sewer system. Thus, only a small percentage of sewage receives some sort of treatment in wastewater treatment plants.
  • Water: Even though most residents have access to piped water, most water sources and waterways within cities are contaminated. Because of pollution problems coupled with growing demand, maintaining reliable supply is a problem, especially for those populations that live in areas prone to flooding.
  • Solid waste: The thousands of tons of solid waste created every day by millions of residents means that conventional and formal methods for disposal are cost-prohibitive. This has led to open burning of undisposed waste, as well as soil, groundwater, and surface water contamination through run-off and leaking.

In all cases, environmental degradation is associated with ill-health effects, for both adults and children. In many cities today, residents suffer from respiratory ailments, vehicular deaths (from poor transport planning), and industrial accidents (from inadequate occupational safety standards). In the most impoverished pockets, where poor water quality, overcrowding, substandard housing, and underventilation prevail, adults and children also suffer and die from infectious diseases including diarrhea, tuberculosis, cerebrospinal meningitis, schistosomiasis, and skin infections. Because so many residents in today’s cities are poor, the result is a highly “unlivable” environment.

Toward “Livable” Cities

Given that urbanization is inevitable, there is a dire need to come up with ways to make cities more “livable.” Of course, “livable” means different things to different people, but most would agree that “livability” can be defined as an equitable urban environment that assures jobs close enough to decent housing with wages commensurate with rents. “Livability” also means having access to the services that make for healthful surroundings and personal satisfaction and happiness. Importantly, “livability” depends on people having an effective say in the control and management of their urban environment. Thus governance, or the ways in which governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) work together, as well as the ways in which political power is equitably distributed in cities, becomes essential to creating “livable” cities.

In the end, it is an open question whether the economic advantages that can be found in the city result in improved quality of living for most residents, who are not a part of the elite population. Even though many cities have become centers for economic growth and wealth generation, most evidence suggests that a handful of people at the top of the social hierarchy reap most of the benefits. Few cities in the world today provide decent livelihoods and healthy habitats for a majority of ordinary people. On the contrary, income inequality is rapidly growing and environmental resources are being degraded on a great scale. Consequently, the changing form, economic base, environmental condition, and social structure of cities will continue to be of immense importance.


  1. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, , The Blackwell City Reader (Blackwell Publishers, 2002);
  2. Peter Evans, , Livable Cities? Urban Struggles for Livelihood and Sustainability (University of California Press, 2002);
  3. Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen, , Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order? (Blackwell Publishers, 2000);
  4. Saskia Sassen, Cities in a World Economy, 2nd ed. (Pine Forge/Sage, 2000);
  5. Allen Scott, , Global City-Regions (Oxford University Press, 2002);
  6. John Short and Kim Yong Hyon, Globalization and the City (Addison Wesley Longman, 1999);
  7. United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), The State of the World’s Cities, 2004/5 (UN-Habitat, 2005).

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