Developing countries do not escape the global urbanisation trend. For example, in South America, 75 per cent of the population lives in cities, and that figure rises to 90 per cent if we consider only the countries in the ‘southern Cone’ where megacities like Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires house most of the population.
In those megacities, which are usually the centre of a country’s political or economic power, people on the whole enjoy a quality of life comparable to that of developed countries. But away from them one finds smaller cities struggling to manage chaotic and unplanned growth — mainly from strong immigration from the rural surroundings.
Impoverished rural areas play a fundamental role in many aspects of urban life, especially but not only in fuelling the peri-urban poverty belts around most cities of the developing world. By ignoring rural poverty, researchers and practitioners working to transform cities into more sustainable communities are missing a very important part of the puzzle.
In spite of many decades of discourse on rural development, non-urban regions often still lack basic services such as health facilities, education, and sanitation. This forces many people to migrate to urban centers.
The constant rural to urban migration complicates every attempt at planning for sustainability in the cities, if such attempts even exist. Overcrowding in the peri-urban areas, where most rural migrants settle, makes it very difficult for planners to provide adequate services and infrastructure to serve the high influx of new residents.
Moreover, these peri-urban areas, where poverty is high, are usually the first to be struck by tragedy when extreme events such as landslides and flooding occur — something that is becoming more common with the effects of climate change.
The links are not limited to migration: rural surroundings also ‘feed’ urban centres with many basic inputs, which of course include food and clean water supplies. So plans for urban sustainability should look beyond cities: urban planners need to work more closely with government officials in charge of programmes for rural development and poverty alleviation.
In developing countries, these programmes are often disconnected from urban sustainability initiatives. In addition, city planners often focus on engineering, while rural developers see poverty alleviation from a social science perspective. This difference in background and approach makes it difficult for them to communicate.
“To many urban dwellers, including national decision makers, their rural surroundings seem like a distant world.”
Recent initiatives related to climate change adaptation can help to breach this divide between urban planning for sustainability and rural development for poverty alleviation.
Urban settlements suffer from many of the vulnerabilities and impacts expected — and observed — in rural settings. Providing crucial services such as water, health and energy in a changing climate will have to take an integrated view that moves away from the traditional rural-urban dichotomy.
For example, the recent increase in vector-borne diseases is no longer primarily a rural issue but is now affecting many tropical cities. The effective control of these outbreaks cannot differentiate between urban and rural areas: both should be included, though not necessarily with the same strategies.
The tropical storms that hit Mesoamerica (the region from central Mexico to northern Costa Rica) in the past decade provide vivid examples of how any impacts on the productive infrastructure in rural areas can affect and even shut down the flow of food and other goods to urban centres.
Time to bridge the divide
Now more than ever is the right time to bridge the rural-urban divide. Cities are closing in on rural areas, with distances shrinking both physically through better road networks and also virtually through a better network of mobile phones and Internet connections. Yet to many urban dwellers, including national decision makers, their rural surroundings seem like a distant world — one that is often forgotten.
An interesting initiative to bridge this mental divide happened recently in Guatemala. Leaders from the privileged class in Guatemala City invited people from the city to spend a weekend with a family living in poverty conditions in the surrounding rural area. The initiative had limited success in attracting volunteers, but gained momentum when the country’s president participated as one of the visiting city dwellers.
Those who participated definitely gained a first-hand impression of what rural life is like in a developing and impoverished world. The president’s participation also increased awareness within the political class on the need to meet the needs of rural communities in order to also improve important aspects of urban life.
Decision makers in developing countries and international aid agencies need to find ways to break the mental divide between rural and urban settings. And they need to encourage development programmes to start thinking in terms of more integrated urban-rural communities. Bringing together multidisciplinary workgroups that integrate officials from the urban planning and rural development areas would be a starting point.
The flow of goods and information between rural and urban communities is constantly increasing, bringing the concept of a true global village closer to a reality. Decision makers need to recognise the reality of this process and incorporate it into their research and practice in order to build more sustainable cities.
Edwin Castellanos is co-director of the Center for Environmental Studies and Biodiversity at the University of the Valley of Guatemala, and a lead author to the IPCC fifth report on climate change. He can be contacted at [email protected]
This article is part of the Spotlight on Transforming cites for sustainability.