Urbanization: expanding opportunities, but deeper divides

Whether the process of urbanization is harnessed and managed, or allowed to fuel growing divides, will largely determine the future of inequality, says UN DESA’s World Social Report 2020. For the first time in history, more people now live in urban than in rural areas. And over the next three decades, global population growth is expected to take place almost exclusively in the world’s cities and towns. The total number of people living in cities is expected to grow from approximately 4.4 billion today to 6.7 billion in 2050.

Like some other megatrends, urbanization has the potential to become a positive transformative force for every aspect of sustainable development, including the reduction of inequality. When properly planned and managed, urbanization can reduce poverty and inequality by improving employment opportunities and quality of life, including through better education and health. But when poorly planned, urbanization can lead to congestion, higher crime rates, pollution, increased levels of inequality and social exclusion.

Inequality within cities has economic, spatial and social dimensions. Economically, inequality is generally greater in urban than in rural areas: the Gini coefficient of income inequality is higher in urban areas than in rural areas in 36 out of 42 countries with data.

Larger cities are generally richer but more unequal than smaller cities. The opportunities that cities bring are unevenly distributed in space, preventing entire neighbourhoods and groups of population from accessing proper health care, good schools, sanitation, piped water, employment opportunities and adequate housing among others. Slums are the most notable extreme of the spatial concentration of urban poverty and disadvantage.

The uncontrolled growth of many cities has resulted in inadequate provision of public services and a failure to guarantee a minimum quality of life for all urban residents. The current speed of urbanization in developing countries makes urban governance and adequate planning increasingly urgent. As cities grow, inequality is likely to increase unless we implement policies to address it.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to reducing urban inequality, some Governments have been able to address the spatial, economic and social aspects of the urban divide and promote inclusive urbanization, including in rapidly growing cities. Their successful strategies have four elements in common. First, they have established land and property rights, paying particular attention to security of tenure for people living in poverty.

Second, they have improved the availability of affordable housing, infrastructure and basic services and access to these services, since good transport networks, including between residential and commercial areas, are key to spatial connectivity and economic inclusion.

Third, they have facilitated access to education and decent employment for all urban residents.

Fourth, they have introduced mechanisms to allow participation in decision‑making,encouraging input from all stakeholders on the allocation of public funds and on the formulation, monitoring and evaluation of all policies.

For more information on the links between urbanization and inequality, please see Chapter 4 of the World Social Report 2020: Inequality in a rapidly changing world.

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