Mega-Inequality in Urban Mega-Regions

Posted on 27 March 2010 by editor

Polluted river by a shanty town in Argentina. Credit: Courtesy UN-HABITAT

By Fabiana Frayssinet and Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 26, 2010 (IPS) – Basic services that are collapsing or non-existent, overcrowding, pollution: these are big-city problems that are compounded in developing countries by poverty and inequality.

According to the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), 40 urban “mega-regions” are home to 18 percent of the world’s population. They also concentrate 66 percent of economic activity and 85 percent of all scientific and technological progress.

But these hallmarks of urban progress that encouraged a mass exodus from rural areas to cities are not ultimately reflected in human development indicators, participants concluded in a number of debates and discussions at the Fifth World Urban Forum – The Right to the City: Bridging the Urban Divide.

At the Forum, held Monday through Friday in Rio de Janeiro, speakers called attention to another factor aggravating the situation: the global urban population is growing by 70 million people a year.

Ninety percent of this urban population growth is occurring in developing countries, at a rate between five and 10 times higher than in wealthy countries, according to the World Bank.

A UN-HABITAT Latin American regional report, debated in the Forum Thursday, stated once again that the urbanisation process has not helped to improve people’s lives.

The report, titled “State of the Latin American and Caribbean Cities 2010″, indicates that urban-based economic activities are responsible for more than 50 percent of overall GDP, and more than 80 percent of GDP in the most urbanised countries in the region.

Cities concentrate wealth, power, communications, science, technology and culture – but they also exhibit the worst forms of social inequality, the report says.

One-quarter of Latin America’s 471 million city-dwellers live in slums or shanty towns, which go by different names in the region, like “favelas” in Brazil or “villas miserias” in Argentina.

The regional study came out alongside a global report by UN-HABITAT, “State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide”, launched ahead of the Forum, which says 827.6 million people live in slums worldwide, a number that is growing at 10 percent a year.

The World Bank says more spending is needed on improving basic services and housing conditions, and creating jobs. As the Bank’s managing director Juan José Daboub said, it’s about “putting the poor on the map.”

“Improving housing conditions for the poor” is a priority, said Cecilia Martínez, head of the UN-HABITAT regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Coordination,” “alliances” and “connections” between central, provincial and municipal governments, and with civil society and the private sector, were repeatedly mentioned as keys to the solution of urban problems.

Coordination is also needed to solve the myriad problems of the so-called “endless cities,” defined by the U.N. as mega-regions or urban corridors, formed where mega-cities have expanded and merged into unprecedented conurbations, Agostinho Guerreiro, head of the Rio de Janeiro Regional Council of Engineering and Architecture, told IPS.

The U.N. report describes the example of the population corridor of Hong Kong-Shenzhen-Guangzhou, home to about 120 million people in southeast China.

And a sort of multi-headed urban monster is forming in Brazil, stretching from Rio de Janeiro to the southern city of Sao Paulo and embracing 43 million people.

Guerreiro identified a mega-region within this vast area, made up of several cities in Rio de Janeiro state which are inter-connected via the state capital and have common problems, such as transport, and possibly common solutions.

“We have close to 15 metropolitan centres sharing these conditions, and we still lack centralised planning by a ‘super-authority’ that would transcend the separate municipalities and could, for instance, implement an integrated transport plan,” Guerreiro said.

Guillermo Tapia Nicola, the executive secretary of the Latin American Federation of Cities, Municipalities and Local Government Associations (FLACMA), says the most serious problem is rooted at the municipal level, namely, the lack of financing for local projects.

Multilateral bodies like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank follow the “monopolistic” logic of central governments, Tapia Nicola told IPS.

In his view, it is essential that the 16,000 municipalities in Latin America should have access to examples of best practices and successful experiments that apply scientific knowledge to urban development.

A panel discussion held during the Forum, “Reducing human vulnerability through better access to basic services”, organised by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR), sought to create this key alliance of action and interests.

Gabriel Arellano, the mayor of the Mexican city of Aguascalientes, described how over the last few years, the supply of potable water had been extended to 95 percent of the city’s 800,000 residents, 10 percentage points higher than the national average.

This was achieved through a UN-HABITAT/UNITAR pilot programme, which established cross-subsidies to benefit the poor in Aguascalientes, the capital of the central Mexican state of the same name.

The project also managed to reduce water losses in the system, from 70 percent to 30 percent of the total supplied, even while coping with population growth, Arellano said.

Other examples of good practices are the community water boards set up in several countries, such as Paraguay, to supply water and sanitation services to the excluded population by means of local residents associations. (END)

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