Cities and Development

Beall, Jo
Fox, Sean
Routledge, Abingdon, 2009, ISBN 978-0-415-39099-6, 267 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Joel Davis
CENDEP, Oxford Brookes University, UK

This book forms part of the Perspectives on Development series. Not an academic thesis, it serves as an introduction to the challenge of development in an urban context. As such, it allocates considerable space to presenting concepts and definitions, and providing a lengthy historical background to explain the global development of cities. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that many of the more strongly opinionated arguments are those uoted from other academics, although the authors are themselves critical of approaches such as Urban Bias Theory (UBT) and New Public Management. The book employs detailed examples to illustrate its themes, leading to some irritating crosspage text boxes which disrupt the narrative but help to give a human perspective to global issues.

Themes are taken from all aspects of development studies. This breadth is at times frustrating, requiring an introduction to the theory first, before it can be applied explicitly to an urban context, and thereby reducing the scope for detailed analysis. Despite this, the book achieves its aim, demonstrating the need to see all the interconnected elements in the development picture, and providing an opening to enable understanding to grow.

The book’s simple thematic format is easy to follow, and its conclusions, summaries, and discussion questions could make it a useful teaching tool. An essential aspect of the authors’ case is the damaging nature of the concept of a natural urban bias in development, and its effect on development in cities in Low- and Middle-Income countries. Recognising the inherent inequalities between different social groups in a single city was a point missed by the supporters of UBT, but Beall and Fox focus on it in detail, until disparity becomes a recurring theme of their book. It is expressed historically with a survey that starts with the actions of European colonialists and extends to the present-day New Public Management and global corporations’ pursuit of profit over anything else. Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, is used several times to convey the persistent inequalities found among urban dwellers. For poor people these inequalities not only restrict access to resources but also increase their vulnerability to violence – a theme which recurs throughout this book. While some case studies are presented as a cause for optimism, no universal solution or template is attempted, and the authors recognise the need to respect local sensitivities in implementing strategies.

This cautious approach serves the book well, as it serves as a starting point rather than a manual to resolve all of the problems that it highlights. It defines all its concepts, assuming no prior understanding on the part of the reader. The layout of book is one of its strongest points; each of the chapters, roughly 30 pages long, can be read as a standalone document, although their usefulness comes from the fact the authors stress the importance of seeing each subject as part of an interconnected bigger picture, recognising that issues such as war and refugees affect urban environments as well as rural ones. The disadvantage of this width is a lack of depth, with case studies often barely scraping the surface in terms of information (although naming the projects does enable readers to do their own research beyond the pages of the book).

Additionally, the need to describe the urban situation requires a rural comparison, and a wider view of development and the historical context. Inevitably this background information reduces the space available for detailed analysis of the specifics of cities and development. The decision to provide this context derives from the needs of the intended audiences: people embarking on the academic study of development for the first time. As an overview, the role of the book is not to resolve the problems that it describes, but I do feel that it is overly negative at times, too infrequently describing the ways in which the issues discussed have been overcome. Often only the failures of governments and organisations are mentioned, leaving the reader with the sinking feeling that these issues cannot be resolved, and that in the case of New Public Management and Decentralisation the efforts that have been made to improve matters have only made them worse.

However, these are not major criticisms, and the book remains easy to understand and a useful introduction to the subject. The content of the textboxes offers insights that outweigh the irritating nature of their presentation. Thus the book will appeal to a broad audience which it might not have reached had it gone into greater detail.

As a book on ‘cities’, it covers topics that other books separate out – conflict, postcolonialism, and environmental management, to name just a few – recognising the urban dimensions to these themes. This is probably the authors’ greatest achievement: refusing to make one issue more important than another, appreciating the joined-up nature of cities. Ultimately, as an introduction to the academic study of development, this book succeeds in providing an understanding of the large, interconnected picture, and offers a starting point which will encourage deeper analysis of the subject.