Thursday, 09 April 2015 16:05

2011: A Review

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The urban development escalator

This year the world’s urban population passed the 3.5 billion threshold. There are now about 66M more urban dweller than there were last Christmas. The number of cities with populations greater than 1 million reached 447. In 1950 it was 75. The average size of the world’s 100 largest cities is now 7.6M.  However, the fastest growth is in the smaller cities.

Asia and Africa dominate the urban increase. Most of the growth is in developing countries – much of it unplanned and taking the form of slums. Millions of people will look back on 2011 as the year that they built their own house on the edge of a city, quite possibly on a flood plain, and gained a precarious foothold in the urban economy. Unless they were evicted or hit by a natural disaster, life got a bit better for them. They may have managed to send a little money home to their family in the countryside. They may return home for family festivals, but they and their children are not going back to the land.

Shrinking settlements

Elsewhere it was a very different story.  In the villages of Eastern Latvia, on the hill farms of Romania, even in the lonely deserts of Utah or amidst the snows of North Dakota, people packed up and moved on.  They had had enough of the unequal struggle to make a living far from the comforts of a large town. Maybe it was when the school closed, or the local shop owner died and nobody took over. Maybe it was at the graduation ceremony that the young woman decided she was not going back to the parental home. For some of the aging population of such places, it was simply mortality that removed them from the census.

It was not just in the countryside. Places that were once socialist industrial boom towns across Russia or homes to factory workers in America’s rust belt continued to shrink. In the US in particular, people walked away from their houses and the debt they owed on them, but could never hope to pay back. Neighbourhoods were left to rot. Las Vegas had basked in sunshine and gambled on property for much of the first decade of the century, when people were getting rich quick. But 2011 meant foreclosures and collapsing prices, stalled development projects and people moving on in the hope of getting a new start somewhere else. Nearer to home, the ghost estates in Ireland remained just that; spectres of the folly of development led by speculation rather than planned to meet needs. They will be with us for some time to come.

Disasters and Resilience

The floods in Queensland, the earthquake in Christchurch (pictured) and the Japanese tsunami a month later reminded us all of the vulnerability of human settlements to natural disasters and the need to plan to mitigate their effects. The speed with which the engineers in Japan were able to reconstruct roads and other basic infrastructure was testimony to what professional capacity can deliver if backed by resources and effective systems of governance.

The routine of disasters in developing countries attracted less attention or speedy remedy. Thus, many died and hundreds of thousands had to flee their homes as Thailand suffered its worst floods in 50 years. Hurricane Irene battered the Caribbean. The Turkish province of Van experienced an earthquake in which hundreds died, with 80 multi-storey apartment blocks collapsing in the city of Ercis. Drought in southern India has seen wells dry up and the already impoverished farmers reduced to desperation.

UN-Habitat devoted its Global Report on Human Settlements for 2011 to the theme of Cities and Climate Change. Cassandra-like, it warned of humanity of the “unprecedented negative impacts upon quality of life, and economic and social stability.” The world’s governments shuffled to Durban to see what might be done, concluded that the answer was “a little bit, eventually” and returned home for Christmas. Even this was too much for Canada, who became the first country to pull out of the Kyoto protocol. The small island developing states exposed long-term to salination of water and land, and loss of properties and natural ecosystems, could only express their frustration (again).

State of the Cities

Signs of hope? Well, Australia took the brave political decision to introduce a carbon tax, and also took another step forward by updating its State of the Cities report. Its federal government committed to all the capital cities having plans in place to guide government infrastructure investment.  Similarly, South Africa confirmed its continuing willingness to build an evidence base for urban policy by publishing its State of the Cities study. Both these Commonwealth efforts make the connection between effective urban planning and management, economic growth, environmental quality and social inclusion.

Elsewhere the Cities Alliance continued to drive forward the practice of producing national state of the cities studies, with work pushing ahead in India and Tanzania, for example.  Bangladesh established a national urban Forum for the first time and their planners rejoined the Commonwealth Association of Planners – thanks to the efforts of young planners inspired by discussions on this blog.  Commonwealth ministers responsible for human settlements met in Nairobi as the Commonwealth Consultative Group on Human Settlements and endorsed the work being done to try to build capacity in new and inclusive forms of urban planning.


The Hungarian EU Presidency worked hard to produce the evidence on the Territorial State and Perspective of Europe. This was then the platform for the policy document The EU’s Territorial Agenda 2020 that was agreed by ministers from the member states.  It reiterated many of the themes from the European Spatial Development Perspective, which had been a clarion call for many in 1999.

The Polish Presidency followed with a characteristically ambitious attempt to advance the territorial development and cohesion agenda. In the end not all the countries could keep pace and the meeting in Poznan in late November ended with some loose ends about a road map.  The Poles forged the necessary inter-governmental consensus to begin to lay the foundations for a continuation of the work of ESPON beyond 2014. More importantly, the Poles oversaw the delivery of the EU’s Cohesion Policy for 2014-2020, frustrating some UK government wishes in the process. Last, but certainly not least, came David Cameron’s decision to row away from Europe. How that might impact on the roll-out of the details on Cohesion Policy is something to look for next year.


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