The river of urbanisation

by David Week on 06 February 2011


I met all day yesterday with my colleagues/friends from the NGO startup CoDesign. In among the to-and-fro on agenda items, the following thesis was floated and briefly discussed:

By making rural life better, can we stem/slow the drift of people into urban slums?

My answer is: no, not in any way that matters.

The importance of rural development

First, I want to voice my strong support for rural development. My reasons are simple:

  • some people live in rural areas
  • there will always some people living in rural areas
  • due to the tyranny of distance, they tend to have greater difficult in accessing:
    • education
    • jobs
    • health care
    • markets
    • ICT

This is the case in Australia. It’s much more extreme in the places like Papua New Guinea or Lesotho. My view: It’s our social responsibility to ensure everyone has a decent standard of living, and viable livelihoods. Furthermore, in some of these countries — the smaller island nations — there will for a long time be limited urban livelihood opportunities. For these countries, rural development is critical.

However, I don’t see that rural development will stem the flow of people into cities.

It’s not a drift

As I’ve discussed everywhere, I’m a strong adherent of the notion that the linguistic structures powerfully shape the way we think. The movement of people from countryside to city is usually described by this metaphor:

urban drift

The image connoted by this metaphor is of some kind of brownian motion of individuals, gradually drifting into cities, perhaps on a notion, or because they had nothing better to do that day. Think of dandelion seeds drifting in the breeze. Stemming this drift is then a matter of ushering in a gentle wind to blow them back, or for those urban drifters that have nothing better to do, give them something to do back home.

Our mental image of drift…

A better metaphor might be:

an urban torrent

Or another metaphor somewhat more placid, but nonetheless representative of an unstoppable flow:

the river of urbanisation.

What our mental image should perhaps look like…

The key point here is: people do not “drift” into cities. They are carried there by forces as powerful as those that drive the Sepik or the Nile. And attempting to “stem this flow” is like dreaming that by building a few retention ponds, dams, or even lakes, these rivers will be diminished.

Such efforts may keep a few megalitres from going down the river, but not for long.

First pressure: population growth

The first pressure that drives people to cities is population growth. Global population is growing like topsy. It’s expected to peak at about 10 billion.

Within less developed countries, population growth is faster than in more developed countries. Here’s the mechanism:

  • Across all pre-industrial communities, fertility is valued because:
    • child mortality is high
    • one’s pension is equal to the number of living children you have
    • in a family business (like a farm) more children = more future workers.
    • therefore, a smart person has as many children as possible: children are a core asset, not a cost.
  • With industrialisation, the production of surplus, and the introduction of social safety nets like pensions, savings, insurances, and the like: older people no longer depend on their children. Public health and modern medicine mean your children are less like to die. Women become seen less as child-rearers and more as equals to men. Children start being seen as economic cost, rather than an economic asset. As a result, fertility falls in all of the more developed countries.
  • As societies develop, public health, internal peace, national markets, and increases in productivity start to bring about this shift where the good life is no longer driven by having many children. But falls in fertility lag: because these benefits are not equally distributed, they take time to take effect, and because culture and social attitudes are slow to respond. The result is that fertility remains high, but the bad old “natural” caps on population are removed, with the result that the population sky-rockets.

Here are a few graphs that make this mechanism visual:

This first graph shows how in an era of high mortality (most of human history), humans have survived with a strategy of high fertility, to balance high mortality. In the modern age, mortality has taken a nose-dive to a new, low level… but there is a lag before people catch on to what is happening, and change their reproductive behaviour and strategy to a matching low level.


This next graph shows how less developed countries are on the middle of this transition, while more developed countries are on the right hand side. It takes a little interpretation, but the population pyramid on the left shows that every generation (every younger cohort, going down) has higher numbers… while the pyramid on the right shows a situation in which each generation is of the same size. In other words, population has stabilised.


In other words: less developed countries have enormous numbers of young people: because they’re still being produced at old high rate, but they are not dying at the old high rate any more.

Second pressure: rural development!

If you go to villages in rural Laos, Indonesia, or India (places I’ve seen this: insert your own) you will see modest rural houses with thatch roofs sprouting a TV dish. Into these houses are beamed images of urban life. This creates an opening up in people’s minds of the possibility of another way of living (rather than the acceptance of the way things have been), which we commonly call “rising expectations.”

This too, I think is a bad metaphor, because it’s not clear to me that people “expect” a better a way life, or even “desire” it. I’d call it something like:

Expansion of opportunity

People realise that there are forms of life beyond subsistence agriculture. People start to look for, and find ways for, improving their lives.

Rural areas are by definition dependent for their livelihoods on the land: on primary production. If you are a poor farmer, there are three ways you can become richer:

  • improve the yield from the land you own (better agriculture)
  • increase the amount of land you farm (mechanisation, expansion, consolidation)
  • become smarter about what you grow and how you market it (better business)

The result is fewer farmers, owning bigger farms. This is what happened in farming, in the United States, over a century of development: from 1900 to 2000…

The end result of people trying to become better off as rural dwellers is inevitably a decline in the number of people needed to work a given piece of land, as farms improve their productivity. All those young people have no jobs in the countryside. So they leave.

Count the workers required:

Working by hand…


Working by machine…


In short: If rural living conditions are to rise, there isn’t room in a rural environment for a lot more people, trying to live off the land. And even when conditions don’t improve, there’s no economic room at the table for a big boost in population. They have to leave.

So what’s happening at the other end of the river: the cities?

Economic engines

Cities are often described as “economic engines”. The reason is the cities facilitate certain kinds of economic activity through one magic ingredient: connectivity. Cities connect people to each other, and enterprises to each other, by simply bringing them together in space, and then stitching them even closer with good infrastructure, transport and communications. So if I make shoes in Woop Woop (Australian slang for some tiny place in the back of beyond), I’ll be lucky to be close to 20 people that need shoes. If I make them in Melbourne, I’ll be close to 4 million people that need shoes.

And cities themselves are closely connected to other cities: by air, by sea, by rail, by road. They are part of a global network of cities. In fact, today’s economic divide is best characterised as not a split between more developed countries and less developed countries, but between urban populations and rural populations.

So if I produce shoes in the city, not only am I close to 4 million potential buyers, but I am connected by port, air, road and rail to other cities, with millions more buyers. I am also connected to 2 million potential employees, who can come to my workplace via roads and rail. I have access to hundreds of competing suppliers. I have access to other services, like power, water, lawyers, accountants, finance, builders and machine tools. All of these make a city enterprise thrive in a way that rural enterprise can’t. And the same applies to both manufacturing and service enterprises.

A dalit shoe factory, India

So as population growth and rural development push people out of the country, growing cities absorb them. As agriculture loses labour, it is taken up by urban manufacturing and services.

This graph shows the development of the United States 1900-2000. The agriculture workforce drops from about 43% to near 1%. Manufacturing grows, until it starts to be lost offshore. And the huge growth is in services, all based in urban areas: media, finance, software, taxis, hairdressers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, architects…


[In an ideal world, this movement of labour would be balanced: as people are crowded out of the countryside, the city economies would grow at just the right pace to absorb them. This is not an ideal world, and sometimes the jobs are not there.]

The scale of this urban migration is massive:


But many of these migrants will end up in “slums”.

The United Nations estimates that in 2001, 924 million people, or 31.6 percent of the world’s urban population, lived in slums; the number today surely exceeds 1 billion. As Planet of Slums author Mike Davis writes, residents of the new slums constitute the “fastest-growing and most unprecedented social class on earth.”

But why in “slums”?

I put this word in quotes because some people find it derogatory, and therefore objectionable. However, the derogation is one of the burdens that slum dwellers face, and I think being upfront about the word, and its many variants, is better than resorting to “informal settlements”, or other euphemisms.

So why in slums?

I saw a talk by Billy Cobbett, who was one of the founders of PlanAct in South Africa and is now the Manager of the Cities Alliance. He gave an answer which makes sense to me. My paraphrase:

No country had ever escaped poverty without industrialisation. And no country has industrialised without cities. Therefore urbanisation is good and necessary for the countries in which it is occurring. The reason that cities end up with slums is very simple: city governments refuse to make the investments necessary to create working, legal, serviced neighbourhoods for the people arriving.

Cobbett relates arguing with governments, telling them that they needed to put in services before people arrived, because afterwards it was too late. The governments responded: “That will just encourage them to come.” But the fact is: they’re going to come anyway.  The problem is the antagonism expressed against the newcomers by those already have the benefits of urban life .

According to UN Habitat, the results of this lack of preparation for urban migration are:

  • Inadequate access to safe water
  • Inadequate access to sanitation and other infrastructure
  • Poor structural quality of housing
  • Overcrowding
  • Insecure residential status.

What this physical assessment does not say is that this lack of security, and lack of basic human rights, exposes the slumdwellers to exploitation by:

  • slumlords, who make millions off the rent they charge these landless people
  • druglords, who addict them and then profit from supplying the addition
  • whorelords, who enslave and prostitute women.

In short…

Urban migration is a necessary and good thing.

It’s essential to rural development, to urban development, and poverty reduction in an era in which people are being helped to live longer, but have not yet begun to reproduce less.

However, it cannot in itself create rural development, urban development or poverty reduction. It has to be steered by policies which accept it as fact, and base rural, urban and economic development on that fact.

Tthe fact that migration creates slums is not the fault of the migrants, and the solution does not lie in attempting to prevent their arrival: a Quixotic goal akin to stopping a river.

Rather: Accept these immigrants, and welcome them by planning for their arrival through tenure, services, public transport, planned neighbourhoods, and the creation of economic opportunities.

The last word goes to cartoonist Sudhir Tailang, published in The Asian Age, February 24, 2009, on the occasion of Slumdog Millionaire‘s Oscar wins:

Further Reading

Stewart Brand, Urban Squatters Save the World

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History, Chapter 1 available here.

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