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Population and urbanization

The world is steadily becoming more urban, as people move to cities and towns. They search for employment and educational opportunities and higher standards of living, migrating from rural lands that can no longer support them. Today, almost half of humanity lives in urban areas, and the urban population is growing two and a half times faster than its rural counterpart. By the year 2025 urban areas are expected to be home to more than two thirds of the world's people. Already the world is largely urban, and even in rural areas life is increasingly affected by the changes created by the growth of cities.

The increases of urban population in developing countries far exceed those in the more developed regions. Today there are nearly two urban dwellers in developing regions for each one urban dweller in the more developed regions; by 2015 there will be more than three; by 2025, nearly four.

Rapid rates of urban population growth strain the capacity of national and local governments to provide basic services. Often the resulting inability to keep pace causes human suffering, environmental damage and unsustainable patterns of development. Many intractable problems typically accompany rapid urban growth, such as poverty, unemployment, inadequate shelter, poor or nonexistent sanitation, contaminated or depleted water supplies, air pollution and other forms of environmental degradation, congested streets and overloaded public transport systems.

Concerned by these looming issues, the world's Governments will convene the Second United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) in Istanbul from 3 to 14 June 1996. The Conference is served by a preparatory process that includes efforts by Governments, a system of national reports and development of an action plan for the future. Through an innovative system of exchanging information about "best practices" in urban governance, participants will trade experiences concerning programmes and policies that have been effective in solving urban problems.

Habitat II will build on the efforts of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, which made stabilization of world population growth a priority. Habitat II will further the ICPD's pledge by considering the underlying cause of urban growth: rising populations. At the Conference, Governments will also discuss many of the problems caused by rapid urbanization, including the difficulty of providing basic services such as water, electricity, sewage, housing, health care and transport.

Controlling the pressure on cities by stabilizing population growth will require progress toward the goals pledged in the Cairo Conference. At the core of the ICPD goals is the empowerment of women through education and access to employment and health care. Governments also agreed to achieve sustainable development by stabilizing world population through extending life expectancy, reducing infant and maternal mortality, providing education for all, and extending reproductive health care to all by 2015. Governments pledged to achieve these goals while sustaining dynamic urban growth. The ICPD goals are vital not just for cities but also for human development in general.

One major area of concern about the growth of urban populations is the already high incidence of urban poverty. Today there are at least 600 million people in urban areas who cannot adequately provide for their basic needs in shelter, employment, water and health. It is estimated that approximately one half of the populations of several of the cities in some of the world's poorest countries already are living below official poverty levels. While the proportion of the poor has decreased in a number of the world's regions, as the population has increased in size, the absolute number of the urban poor is increasing. At the same time, in Asia, the incidence of urban poverty has been decreasing since the mid-1980s in a number of countries, which clearly indicates that something can be done.


Education, particularly for girls and women, is one of the keys to social and economic development. Research has shown that the education of girls and women is a powerful ally in the fight to eradicate poverty. Educated women are better able to care for their own health and that of their families, making education a crucial condition for sustainable development. Educated women marry and bear children later, and they have fewer and healthier children.

Educational conditions in rural areas are often prejudicial to girls, especially in "traditional" cultures. Urban areas not only tend to be more cosmopolitan in outlook, but have advantages over rural areas in enrolment ratios, the proportions of primary schools which offer all grades and the number of schools available. These advantages are further magnified at the secondary and tertiary levels. The challenge will be to ensure that these opportunities are available to all children and to maintain these advantages against the expected increases in school-age population, which will hamper the ability of many urban school systems to create new places, particularly as female enrolment increases.


Rapid growth in cities can mean more health hazards for the urban poor because of pollution, homelessness and reductions in public expenditures on health care. Dense urban living can facilitate the emergence of more virulent strains of once treatable diseases, as well as the quicker spread of new disease-causing organisms, such as those that cause HIV/AIDS. Consequently, urban mortality rates among the poor often exceed those of their rural counterparts. However, urban maternal mortality, even among the poor, is consistently lower than maternal mortality in rural areas, most likely resulting from better medical treatment during pregnancy and greater access to emergency obstetric care.

Conditions in urban areas also favour establishment of health care, including reproductive health care - another of the key Cairo goals. Public medical services are located overwhelmingly in urban settings. Because of the better access to medical services, urban women are more likely to receive higher levels and better quality of maternal care. Likewise, medical services facilitate better medical care among all urban citizens, thereby increasing life expectancy and quality of living. The challenge is for Governments to improve the quality of services (including emergency care) and maintain it in the face of mounting population pressures.

The combination of better education and better health care, including access to reproductive health services, results in wider choice for women, with benefits for them and their children, as can be seen in such nations as Sri Lanka and South Korea. In these two countries, where women have an average of more than six years of schooling, maternal and infant mortality rates are among the lowest in Asia, and families have an average of about two children. A healthier and more stable population has a better chance to achieve sustainable development. The productivity and sense of well-being and security of people is directly affected by their state of health and their expectation of healthy life.

Information is a vital tool in the effort to stabilize population growth. A slowing of the population growth rate in some areas of the world has been attributed to increased options for women, including better reproductive health care services and better access to them. In Kenya fertility has already fallen, from a high of more than eight children per woman in the 1970s to slightly more than six. Fertility rates are also dropping rapidly in Iran, where women had an average of nearly seven children in the early 1980s but only five today. This decline can be traced to the Iranian government's 1989 decision to emphasize reproductive health care and provide access to family planning information and services. The challenge for developing countries is to provide a wider range of choices for women.

Pressures of rapid urbanization

Urbanization can offer many benefits to developing societies. Cities provide exceptional opportunities for entrepreneurship, creativity and the generation of wealth. Education, health and social services in cities are typically much superior to those in rural areas.

However, when the rate of urbanization exceeds the pace at which the city can support its inhabitants, problems occur. The majority of the world's cities suffer from inadequate sewage facilities, poor drainage, insufficient solid waste disposal and poor air and water quality. These problems are common among cities, and to a great extent the burden of solving them falls on municipal authorities. The Habitat II process is focusing world attention on these challenges and promoting discussion on how to address them.

Suggested approaches include development of partnerships between private firms and Governments to solve problems, as well as sharing information on which solutions have worked best, in the hope that they will be adopted in other localities as appropriate.

Water supply is among the most serious problems facing the cities of developing countries. Problems related to water supply are city-specific, and the challenge for each city will be to understand the unique geographical, topographical and meteorological conditions in which it is placed and to plan accordingly. Most sewage systems, like most water supply systems, were constructed to meet the needs of the colonial populations of the core cities. Because of the rapid growth of cities in developing countries, the challenge will be to meet expanding sewerage needs in the coming decades.

In the case of air pollution, problems are always city-specific, reflecting differences in climate, topography and local sources of pollution. Throughout the developing world, air pollution results when the emissions from vehicles, industry and domestic heating and cooking sources exceed the capacity of the cities' natural ventilation systems. The challenge will be to limit these sources of pollution, especially through the innovation and diffusion of new and cleaner appropriate technologies.

Urban transport conditions vary widely among the world's large cities, both in congestion and the many policy responses. Many cities have experienced a very rapid growth in the number of private motor vehicles, typically leading to severe traffic congestion. The responses have included high-cost projects such as the construction of public transportation systems. Some cities have given attention to improving public buses, which are often overcrowded and poorly maintained. In many cities, low-cost engineering and management strategies exist to improve transportation at a relatively low cost. The challenge for cities is to take into account the resources, geography, technology and needs of the people when designing affordable and functional public transport systems.

Many of the options that used to exist for low-income urban dwellers are disappearing, such as the availability of unused public land and low-density central-city neighborhoods. While the demand for land is growing, the supply in most cities of the developing world is both genuinely and artificially limited. It has been estimated that rapid urbanization is likely to lead to a doubling of the built-up urban areas in most developing countries over the next 15 to 20 years. Since land is essential for urban growth, devising equitable and efficient land development policies is one of the major challenges facing planners and policy makers in the world's large cities. To meet these challenges, Governments will have to maintain or create policies and mechanisms that involve participation by all sectors of the community. Habitat II will encourage Governments and local authorities to embark on partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations and industry to improve management of cities. In this way, Habitat II will help to create opportunities for citizens to participate in local decision-making processes, creating innovative solutions to urbanization issues.

Project examples

Several sectors are already actively involved in addressing population issues. For example, an Indonesian NGO, Yayasan Kusuma Buana (YKB), has successfully operated urban clinics that offer family planning information and services such as prenatal care, immunization, and general maternal and child health services and information. The YKB clinics cater to people of low to moderate income, complementing the government clinics which mostly serve the poor and the private clinics and hospitals used by wealthy Indonesians. Patients pay a modest fee, and delayed-payment plans are offered.

In Nairobi, the United Nations and the Nairobi City Commission have addressed family planning and health issues through both clinics and community-based outreach. The project has trained hundreds of residents to distribute contraceptives and to educate communities on reproductive health, including family planning, pre- and postnatal care, nutrition, immunization, a clean environment and safe sex.

Training also includes home-based care of people with AIDS. Trained nurses work as supervisors between the trained residents and the health centres. Working together, they mobilize community education campaigns on family planning and on AIDS. Some communities have developed this campaign further by forming volunteer village health committees to work for a clean environment that provide clean water, garbage centres, public toilets and storm water drainage.

The many problems facing cities today underscore the fact that cities are the locus of the most rapid population growth in human history. Aside from posing problems, however, growing human numbers also offer hope. People are innovative, and Habitat II is helping them to focus on areas where improvements are needed. Dense urban living offers many economies of scale; in principle, more people can live at a higher standard of living while consuming fewer resources per capita. In the end, improving social and economic conditions for all people in urban environments can make the largest contribution to sustainable development, especially in the developing world where needs and growth are greatest.

For more information contact:
Department of Public Information
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E-Mail: vasic@un.org


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