Thursday, June 28, 2007

Pack up the Bags Honey, We're Heading to the City!

In the NYT today, there is an article quoting a United Nations Population Fund report predicting an explosion in the population of cities in the coming two decades and that, world-wide, the number of people living in cities will be greater than the number of people not living in cities. Among the more interesting findings is that cities, as a whole, take up approximately 2.8% of the Earth's land surface, and the report goes on to say: "This means that about 3.3 billion people occupy an area less than half the size of Australia."

Expecting the report to be a carefully worded diplomatic document calling on nations to make sure that policies protect all interested parties...yada, yada, yada, I was shocked to find the policy initiatives advocated by the report. It sounded like I was reading a David Harvey article. It was an utter condemnation of the private land system and the problems that it can cause for the poor (I quote it at length to give sense of the tone):

The problem is not so much the shortage of land or the number of poor urbanites, but rather their restricted access to serviced land and housing because of distorted land markets.

Servicing already settled areas costs more than pro­viding serviced land on unoccupied sites. Yet public authorities, pleading insufficient funds, seem to find smaller investments in ex post facto programmes more appealing than well-planned proactive policies. Much could be done to improve the situation, for instance, by enacting special legislation for the provision of adequately serviced land for low-income groups. Cities could finance urban development by taxing increases in land value resulting either from public investment in local urban infrastructure or services, or from the redefinition of land uses towards more profitable ones, such as changes from rural to urban or from residential to commercial uses.

The urban poor tend to be treated as if they were passive in the production and consumption of land, yet they have some capacity to pay for land, despite their low and unstable incomes. Indeed, the poor already pay very high prices for the housing they find through the informal market. This capacity to pay could be better mobilized through formal regulation and provision of plots of land.

Scarcity of land or financial resources is thus not the only obstacle to the implementation of sustainable policies. In a sense, poor people have to be protected from the abusive practices of developers who capitalize on services provided by the local communities or by the public sector. Political will, as well as managerial and technical capacities, are needed to identify, capture and properly invest available resources—including the resources of poor people themselves—into more equitable urban development.

I didn't have a chance to read the whole report, but it does go on to talk about these changes and the both the impact on global warming and the impact from global warming in terms of sea-level rise and the vulnerability to natural disaster. Surprisingly, one of the topics that the report does not appear to confront is the fact that concentrating poverty into areas in cities without water and sanitation facilities can lead to the outbreak of things like Multi-Drug Resistant TB and other diseases that have the opportunity to do all kinds of damage to the population, even if you live in one of the gated communities surrounding a favela, barrio or ghetto.

[Link to the full report]


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