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Survival in the Cities:
Urban Poverty and Urban Development

Entire blocks in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem in New York City look as if they have been under aerial bombardment. Tens of thousands sleep in the cemeteries in Cairo, and in Bombay the "pavement dwellers" number in the millions.

Such vignettes from the world's megacities (those with populations larger than 10 million) are so powerful and so widely circulated that they have become emblematic of poverty itself.

But the image of runaway urban growth and rampant misery tends to obscure the complexities of how cities grow and what can be done about the parallel growth of poverty.

* Although the data are far from conclusive, some experts say the rapid growth of megacities seems to be slowing. "Lagos had 5.6 million people at its most recent census; they were expecting 8 million", notes David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), a London-based research group. "S o Paulo and Mexico City are losing population; mid-size cities like Curitiba [Brazil] and Monterrey [Mexico] are growing and often are doing better", according to Satterthwaite, who is one of the authors of the 1996 United Nations Global Report on Human Settlements.

The megacities, according to many predictions, were destined to dominate the planet the way the dinosaurs once did. But the super-cities may be handicapped by a problem the dinosaurs faced: sheer size. Saskia Sassen, professor of urban planning at Columbia University and author of Cities in a World Economy, thinks many people who move to large cities may have second thoughts. She points out that "when it takes many hours to travel from one part of the city to another, the proximity of people and resources which make cities productive in the first place is negated". Both migration choices and investment patterns are affected. Ms. Sassen also notes the impact of government action, such as a Mexican population retention programme for towns and mid-sized cities.

* Although cities in both developed and developing countries are conventionally portrayed as staggering under the burdens of providing services for the poor, a close-up study of squatter settlements in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka by Rita Afsar of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies reveals a different picture. "Squatters don't have formal access to public services, so they pay bribes for services, and women carry home water from springs and streams", Ms. Asfar notes. "The poor perform most of the manual labour in the city - which would be paralyzed without its rickshaw drivers. As garment industry workers, they are responsible for the bulk of the country's export earnings. And contrary to myth, these people are not involved inordinately in crime and drugs. More often, they are the victims of gangsters protected by members of the elite."

For most of Dhaka's 7 million inhabitants, survival depends on mutual support among friends and family. But the stress placed on family structures can cause them to collapse. In Dhaka, as in many other cities, there are increasing numbers of single-parent households headed by women, who suffer from poverty rates much higher than those for two-parent families. "Divorced and separated women must fight continuously against discrimination", Ms. Asfar says.

* It has become fashionable to decry public-sector intervention against poverty as futile and wasteful, but recent experiences indicate that government regulation can be usefully deployed, even in economies converting from centralized to market economies. After 1990, market forces energizing downtown Prague drove up real estate costs, along with rents for lower-income groups such as retired people, gypsies and others, who lived in the centre, according to Dr. Jiri Musil of the Central European University. Regulations were put in place that encouraged landlords to convert street-level facilities to profitable restaurants and shops, while residential rents on the upper floors were controlled. Dr. Musil credits these policies, as well as advocacy by the Association for the Protection of Tenants, with preserving the living standards of those who might have sunk into poverty while retaining an urban population that can meet the booming demand for labour in the downtown area.

Structural adjustment and the cities

"Urban settlements hold a promise for sustainable human development and for the protection of the world's natural resources through their ability to support large numbers of people on a limited space and with a high degree of technical and economic efficiency", Germany's Housing Minister, Klaus T÷pfer, told participants at a November 1995 meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in preparation for the upcoming United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (UNCHS) - Habitat II. But the capacity of cities to create and distribute wealth and dispense basic services is being strained by international economic trends of the 1980s and 1990s.

"Structural changes favouring free markets, liberalization and reduced public-sector spending are killing local industry and local government in Lima", says Peruvian economic consultant Oscar Ugarteche. "Who else but industry and government is going to hire the poor? The stock market keeps going up, but the poor don't own stocks."

Yao Graham, deputy director of the Integrated Social Development Centre, a community-based organization in Ghana, reports a swing away from the city's role as an escape hatch from abject poverty. "According to the most recent standard of living survey, in 1987-88 the incidence of poverty was 36.9 per cent nationally and only 8.5 per cent in the capital city of Accra; in '91-'92, the figures were 31.5 per cent at the national level and 23 per cent in Accra", he says. He adds that rates of school enrolment fell more rapidly in the cities than in the countryside, and that the overall extent of poverty was probably understated by the survey, because living costs are higher in urban than in rural areas.

Mr. Graham attributes unprecedented urban poverty to inflows of the rural poor as well as to the effects of structural adjustment programmes undertaken in Ghana under terms set by international financial institutions. Adjustment entailed decreased government services and food subsidies, smaller government payrolls and closure of government-run enterprises, while the hoped-for spurt in private investment has yet to materialize, he says.

"It is not clear what the ultimate impact of structural adjustment programmes will be", says the IIED's David Satterthwaite. "But up to now, these programmes have had a devastating impact on African, Latin American and South Asian urban populations without delivering many positive results."

Partnerships for progress

Cut-backs in public services have exacerbated the situation of the poor in the United States, and in western Europe high unemployment is bringing unaccustomed poverty to the urban centres. With the exception of enclaves such as Singapore and Hong Kong, severe poverty continues to afflict the high-growth cities of East Asia. The notable persistence of poverty in even the most successful of the world's economies has convinced many anti-poverty campaigners that, rather than await the big battalions of economic growth, it is necessary to attack poverty through grass-roots action. Often, it is the poor who take the lead in devising ways to overcome urban misery.

Erik Vittrup, Chief Technical Advisor for the UNCHS Community Management Programme in San Jos , Costa Rica, recounts an example of this kind of initiative, undertaken by squatter settlers in a San José neighborhood, or barrio, named Llanos de Dona Gloria. The Community Management Programme in San José and other cities around the world attempts to build partnerships between government, the private sector and low-income residents.

The barrio is situated adjacent to a garbage dump, and until 1994 rainwater filtered through the refuse and polluted living quarters. Government engineers came up with a plan for diverting the water, but it was expensive. Asked for suggestions, the residents designed an effective but much less costly system of pipes to handle the run-off.

"The engineers said they were crazy", Mr. Vittrup recalls. "But just digging the trenches for the pipes diverted most of the water. Without the waste water, the people had a new street and new air. They started improving their homes and planting gardens; investments came in and diseases that had been prevalent went away."

"We impart analytical tools and ad hoc training in local development projects, depending on the needs of the community", Mr. Vittrup says. "It's equally important to train the public sector - officials, doctors, engineers - to work in cooperation with the community". He estimates that water treatment, paving, school-building and job-creation programmes cost 30 to 50 per cent less if developed from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.

"As a result of structural adjustment", he says, "the Costa Rican Government decided it had to come up with new approaches to eliminating poverty, based on community management and decentralized decision-making".

A similar approach is proving successful in the southern United States city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Faced with economic decline and a rapidly deteriorating centre, the municipal authorities in 1988 launched "Vision 2000", a public/private-sector partnership to upgrade housing, save neighbourhoods, reduce pollution and create jobs. At the heart of the process are leaders from Chattanooga's inner-city neighbourhoods.

Typical of the revitalization was the response of residents in housing projects on the city's west side to the closure of a public school in 1988. They came together around the idea of installing a community service centre in the empty building, and painstakingly put together an organization to negotiate with the mayor and the city council. Walking away from the talks with the deed to the building and a loan, the neighbourhood residents planned the new facility, raised additional funds and hired themselves to work on the construction.

"I can see the school building right now, just looking out my window", says Sheila Jennings, president of the College Hill Resident Association on the city's west side. "We're putting in a health clinic, a dentist's office, several different job-training programmes, a 'smart shop' with computers, and clubhouses for youths of different ages." Ms. Jennings also is starting a community-based catering business - she got the idea from the numerous luncheon meetings her group attended - and reports that out of 30 "core moms" who spearheaded the organizing, 28 have gotten off welfare and are working. Such progress leads Ms. Bessie Smith, president of the Lincoln Neighborhood Improvement League, to boast that "Chattanooga is now one of the greatest mid-sized cities in the United States".

The Chattanooga revitalization is among the examples of "best practices" that were cited at the 1995 Dubai meeting. Another city that won acclaim for what Habitat II Secretary-General Dr. Wally N'Dow termed "cost-effective urban projects" is the Brazilian city of Curitiba.

Intelligent administration and community participation in decision-making helped this state capital in southern Brazil to develop an economy with a mix of manufacturing, services and commerce. Job creation and overall liveability are aided by the Speedy Line - a bus network with loading platforms and dedicated lanes that functions almost as effectively as a subway, but at less than one per cent of the cost. Facing a rapid influx of low-income people from the surrounding agricultural districts, Curitiba has managed to increase the amount of per capita "green" urban space from .5 square metres to 50 square metres, build public housing and computer-equipped libraries and feed the hungry.

"The Curitiba approach", says Saskia Sassen, "is to look at everything on hand as a resource"- including the garbage. A solid-waste/job-creation programme clears away dumps, opens up public space and leads to micro-industries such as the manufacturing of toys from recycled materials. Another innovative project allows the poor to trade in collected refuse for food and bus tickets, improving living standards and cutting down on municipal sanitation expenditures.

"People should come in to the cities and be productive", says Erik Vittrup. "The urban dream is still alive, but unfortunately most Governments are not prepared to deal with the magnitude of urban growth and the complexity of the issues. One of the best ways to meet the challenge is to train people to control their local habitats and become democratic leaders".

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