Thursday, April 08, 2010

No end in sight for sprawling cities

URBAN TRENDS. While sustainable urban development has become trendy and politically correct in many countries, sprawling cities remain a big problem in parts of the world where urbanisation is most intense.
In a recent report a United Nation agency points out that urban sprawl has become an issue in many developing countries. UN Habitat names cities like Johannesburg, Cairo and Mexico City as examples of major metropolitan areas where sprawl has become a cause for concern.
In its report “State of the World Cities 2010/11: Bridging the Urban Divide”, the UN agency says that urban sprawl in many developing countries comprises two main, contrasting types of development in the same city.
One is characterised by large areas with informal and illegal patterns of land use. This is combined with a lack of infrastructure, public facilities and basic services, and often is accompanied by little or no public transportation and bad roads.
Mexico City is an example of this. In a study done by the London School of Economics a few years ago, it was said that 60 percent of the nearly 20 million inhabitants of Mexico City live in illegal and informal housing.
The other pattern is a form of “suburban sprawl” with residential zones for middle- and high-income groups in search of a better lifestyle where the car is the main means of transportation.
This type of suburban sprawl has long been associated with North American cities. But with Barack Obama in the White House, urban sprawl has become a political issue in the United States.
Obama is seen as an “urban president” advocating denser cities and public transit over car-oriented suburban sprawl. His opponents call this an attack on the American way of life.
With the rapid urbanization in many parts of the world, UN Habitat sees risks with continued sprawl in growing urban regions.
Sprawl will add to urban divide causing social segregation along economic lines. Various parts of cities will differ in wealth and quality of life, as the poor move in one direction and the better-off in another.
“In a nutshell: sprawl is a symptom of a divided city”, the report says.
UN Habitat writes that urban sprawl in developing countries occurs because authorities pay little attention to slums, land, services and transport. Authorities often lack the ability to predict urban growth and therefore fail to provide land for the urbanizing poor. This drives people to makeshift homes in the periphery of cities.
While urban sprawl is a growing problem in the developing world and seems to become more and more of a political issue in the United States, many European cities are now growing within their existing borders through densification and development of derelict industrial and harbour sites.
Cities like Hamburg and Oslo, just to give two examples, are going through transformations of their city centres through huge waterfront developments.
London, another example, is one of the world’s most dispersed major cities. But now the city is growing within its borders, primarily in eastern parts of the city where the upcoming 2012 Summer Olympics is generating growth.
That will be an example to follow for other major cities as they move into the Urban Age at full speed.

Copyright: UN Habitat
Johannesburg, an example of a sprawling city.