The New Global Frontier: Urbanization,Poverty and Environment in the 21st Century

Martine, George;
McGranahan, Gordon;
Montgomery, Mark;
Fernandez-Castilla, Rogelio;
London: Earthscan, 2008, ISBN:978-1-84407-559-1, 386 pp.
Reviewed by or other comment: 

Wellington Didibhuku Thwala

Department of Construction Management and Quantity Surveying,

University of Johannesburg,

South Africa

The New Global Frontier argues convincingly that urbanisation is the most important issue of the twenty-first century – even more important than economic growth, poverty, and the environment. Urbanisation is critical for economic growth, for reduction of poverty, for stabilisation of population growth, and for long-term sustainability. Currently more than 3.3 billion people live in towns and cities, and the total is expected to rise to around 5 billion by 2030. Most of the growth will occur in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.The book presents in detail the absolute increases in urban population by world regions from 1950 to 2030. Its premise is that urbanisation in the next few decades will be much more rapid and concentrated in Asia and Africa – and especially in localities with low levels of economic development – little urban infrastructure, inadequate sanitation and water, and a lack of housing for the poor.

Contributors to The New Global Frontier argue that the poor are a minority in urban centres. Residents of urban areas generally enjoy social and economic advantages relative to rural inhabitants. The disparity between rural and urban areas sometimes influences policy makers to favour solutions that try to resolve poverty in rural areas, while also attempting to prevent rural–urban migration, in the hope that this will prevent the transfer of poverty to cities. The book argues that rural areas present fewer options for gainful employment and for fulfilling minimal socio-economic aspirations.

Informal activities in many developing countries provide employment opportunities for millions of people beyond the formal economy. This can account for as much as two-thirds of urban employment, providing a main source of employment and income for poor urban women in particular. The view that rural–urban migration is a principal cause of urban poverty proves to be misguided (George Martine et al., pp. 9–10). The best-known policies that have successfully controlled rural–urban migration have had to be very harsh: for example, colonial policies that limited the rights of rural dwellers to move to urban areas. Apartheid South Africa instituted strict policies to control rural–urban migration, and in the long run they failed to control it. The book discusses the view that urban dwellers in poor countries live mainly in huge urban agglomerations, and it shows that the notion that city growth is principally fuelled by rural-to-urban migration is not always true.

It is clearly argued that there is much empirical evidence indicating that rural-to-urban migrants themselves benefit from relocation, and very little evidence to suggest that migration drives up urban poverty (Cecilia Tacoli, pp. 37–53). The authors disagree with the anti-urban attitudes of policy makers, who often view migration as a factor that exacerbates urban poverty and needs to be directly controlled. Urbanisation was a centrepiece in the early theoretical formulations of the demographic transition, establishing social and economic conditions that facilitate declines in both mortality and fertility rates. Policy makers and planners have promoted fragmented approaches to urban planning, and this has hampered the application of effective and sustainable solutions to problems of urbanisation, poverty, and the environment for both urban and rural areas. Market forces alone would be incapable of promoting urbanisation if people were not attracted to this style of life. The structural limitations of choice have to be factored in when analysing consumer preferences. The choice may not be between sprawl and compact cities, but in favour of urban forms that are designed with an explicit concern for environmental values and the need to ensure sustainability.

Ravillion et al.1 argue that urbanisation is a generally positive factor in overall poverty reduction, and that higher rates of increase in the urban population tend to be associated with steeper rates of overall poverty reduction. Rural poverty levels tend to fall more rapidly in countries with higher rates of urbanisation. In the book under review, Michael J. White et al. argue (p. 304) that urbanisation appears to be having an effect on the composition of the urban population, in that the new urban residents tend to be poorer than the previous urban population. Urbanisation has undoubtedly presented new opportunities for women in terms of access to employment and income. Paid employment for women can elevate their status and favour transformation of gender roles through improved standards of living and better access to economic opportunities. Urban living makes the biggest difference to gender relations at the household level. Currently, there is a huge increase in female labour-force participation in non-agricultural wage employment (UNRISD, quoted by Luis Mora, pp. 77-9).

Lynn Collins (p. 279) argues that with half of the world’s population currently residing in urban areas, it is imperative to understand how urbanisation and HIV interact with each other, and to use the advantages of urbanisation more effectively. This will assist policy makers and urban planners to determine the kind of intervention which must be put in place. Urban growth and viability are influenced by the AIDS epidemic through demographic dynamics. HIV and AIDS also affect sustainable urban development and quality of life. Urbanisation affects the AIDS epidemic in both favourable and unfavourable ways. This debate requires a consideration not only of how to regulate urban expansion, but of how to provide suitable and socially agreeable living spaces within denser cities, because urbanisation carries important implications for development, poverty, health, environmental quality, and social-welfare provision. It is important to emphasise that developing countries will continue to urbanise: what path that urbanisation will take, and how city development will affect overall well-being remains to be seen. It is important to note that any strategy to reduce poverty needs to recognise that reducing urban poverty will generally help to reduce rural poverty, and vice versa.

This book makes an important contribution to knowledge. It will appeal to a variety of stakeholders, ranging from development practitioners, planners, and academics, to policy makers.

1 Martin Ravallion, Shaohua Chen, and Prem Sangaula: New Evidence on the Urbanization of Global Poverty, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 4199, 2007.