It is perhaps as characteristic of people to want to fulfil their innate desire to put food in their mouths—to feed themselves and their families—as it is for them to want to move constantly. It is for reason of the former that the latter happens anyway—either directly or remotely.

On the face of it, this whole idea of people moving from one confinement to another—the idea of persons rummaging for better lives for themselves and families should only elicit such response: let them eat cake—should they find it. If they think themselves deserving of better lives than that which they have now, let them seek this cake, have it and eat it too. But surprisingly—or perhaps unsurprisingly when the cause is shown—the response of some developing countries, African countries especially, to the movement of their populace from rural to urban centres has been—well, let us just say that these migrants are not met with the kind of cheer one would think deserving them. Many African countries have gone so far as to show a clear disdain for rural-urban migration. One wonders why.

A comprehensive definition of urbanisation is keen.

The term urbanisation is broad in its implication, although mostly narrowly defined as a rural-urban migration—the shift in the population of a country from rural to urban areas. This transition includes too, a shift from rural to urban land use, economic activities, or culture. Hence, although persons may move from settlements designated as rural to urban ones, settlements themselves may shift from rural to urban categories; so can economic activities carried out in these areas by inhabitants change, from rural (agricultural and subsistence economy) to urban activities (industrial and service economy). These shifts result, ideally, in a phenomenon termed urban sprawl—the expansion of the territories, benefits, and features of cities into what were otherwise termed rural areas. This is not a given, one will find, for it may also be the case that as urbanisation increases, a country may end up experiencing an expansion of the boundaries, problems of rural centres into urban areas instead. If the former be termed urban sprawl, then it is apt to term the latter rural sprawl.

Urbanisation also comprises the rate at which an increase in the proportion of urban dwellers happens over time. It is distinguished from urban growth which is the absolute number of people living in urban areas.

The scare developing countries have received from scholars, pertaining to urbanisation, creates the impression that this rural-urban migration is a phenomenon so new, so exclusive to these countries, that the only benefits it can reap are those already reaped by most of these countries—the expansion of slums, increase in crime, and an overall creeping of the problems of rural centres into urban areas. To give this impression of exclusivity would be as ludicrous as trying to pin the origin of migration—urbanisation—to a particular century and country. Which is what some historians do. The sly proponents of Eurocentrism generally peg the start of urbanisation as during the Renaissance—16th Century, with much higher rates occurring at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. This version of history reeks heavily of insufficiency, ignorance perhaps. For with a little study of human nature one is likely to find, as suggested earlier in this article, an intrinsic desire and accompanying ability of humankind to move, in search of lives they think befitting—be it economic, social, or environmental. Should one take a stroll back into history, and make notes of these instances of rural-urban migration, one is likely to find a vast number of cases of urbanisation—extending beyond race, culture, and nationality.

In the 16th–17th century, for instance, Mughal, India had 15% of its population living in urban areas, this being higher than recorded in Europe around the 18th century—which was between 8-13%. It is true, Britain did record an increase in urbanisation in the 18th-19th century, owing to the agricultural and industrial revolution the country experienced at that time. So did the USA, in the 19th century—also driven by the country’s industrial revolution; so did sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and much of Asia in the 20th century. Urbanisation has its grip on the modern world. Yet, as at the end of the 20th century, just 15% of the entire world population were living in cities. This, however, was to change in 2007—more than 50% of the world population was urbanised for the first time in history. This rose, in 2014, to 54%. UN projects now that by 2050 68% of the world’s population will be living in cities.

This, however, does not answer, but only seem to make more prominent this question: why are developing countries antsy about urbanisation, especially when it is found to be a common stage in the national lives of countries?

It may be because of the numbers.

In recent years, it has been the lot of developing countries to be the subject of series of studies and surveys which have been monolithic in tone and implication: developing countries, sub-Saharan Africa especially are urbanising at an alarming and unprecedented rate. Africa is urbanising without growth. These bizarre accounts have led many to suggest the inhibition of this form of migration—some have suggested shifting attention from urban to rural developments instead. These warnings when given in isolation mean nothing; their full effect is felt when looked at through a comparative lens.

Is Urbanisation a bad thing?—case study: Europe and USA

In 18th-century-Europe, a successive stroke of geniuses helped birth the Industrial Revolution. What resulted was a shift of the population from rural to urban areas—shifts of which resulted, in England and Wales, for instance, in an increase in the proportion of city inhabitants from 17% in 1801 to 54% in 1891. In 1800, the USA had only 5% of its population living in cities. This skyrocketed to 50% in 1920—driven too by the country’s industrial revolution. The developed world effectively transformed this transition in population into economic growth. Urban manufacturing and service sectors were fully equipped to drive growth. Inventions, machinery produced by the industries helped increase agricultural productivity in rural centres. Sophistication in agriculture freed up manpower to move to cities to man these thriving factories—for while rural agricultural activities thrive on the dispersion of the population, industries thrive on agglomeration. A cyclical trend ensued as the services of these immigrants in the urban centres positively affected the agricultural activities of the rural areas.

In 1820, the USA was experiencing an influx of immigrants from its rural areas and other countries. The existence of a thriving labour-intensive manufacturing sector helped absorb the influx of labour; productivity experienced a surge, and consequently, an increase in real wages resulted. By 1920, however, the nation was in dire need of skilled labour. The country, once again, was adequately prepared, for its schools were churning out educated, skilled labour, and highly educated policymakers. This was the beginning of an overall increase in the quality of the human resource capital of the country. These two regions, Europe and North America, now consist of the highest per capita income and most economically developed countries.

Developed countries reveal a trend: there exists a correlation between urbanisation and high per capita income, growth, and sustainable development. Studies show that almost all nations attain at least 50% urbanisation rate before they can reach the status of middle-income countries. Countries generally attain a 70-80% urbanisation rate before attaining the status of high-income states. Following this urbanisation/economic growth nexus, it is only expected that countries like UK and USA have higher levels of urbanisation than developing countries. The UN projection for the year 2050, notes that by that year, developed countries would be 84% urbanised as against the 64% stated for developing countries.

Europe and North America’s journey, although skillfully managed, were not without hitches. During the 19th century, countries in these regions experienced a series of unsanitary, unhygienic conditions—health and environmental conditions—ranging from malaria, cholera and other waterborne diseases, air pollutions, etc. London, for instance, witnessed a severe air-pollution in 1952—the Great Smog, resulting in the disruption of road, rail, and air travel. Over 4,000 lives were lost. The government met this head-on with a series of public health movements, implementations of new regulations, and an all-inclusive citizenry response to sanitation and pollution issues.

Rural areas as candidates

A case for rural over urban development is bizarre in this highly industrialised, globalised Information Age that nations which so much as lean more towards the former than the latter can only expect to remain as they are, stuck in the damaging poor countries category, or the empty attempt at hopefulness—developing nations group. Rural areas and their characteristic village culture stand very little chance at effectively competing, on behalf of a country, in this age, on the international stage. Villages are, by nature, comprised of people connected by clans, kinship, families, and other forms of blood ties. They are bonded by ideals of intimate and communal relationships—a feature, homely on the face of it, but woefully ineffectual in this competitive globalised age. Rural areas are more likely to stubbornly hold on to customs and practices which find themselves futile with the turn of time; they are likely to cling to the dictates of ancestors who would be lost in this age so unfamiliar to them. Growth of any kind—economic, social, or environmental ride on change—constant and consistent change. Rural areas globally, and in African countries especially, lack this feature, making them comparatively less equipped to spearhead a country’s journey towards development. This case against rural areas is heightened even more by the case for urban areas as forefronts for national growth.

The reasons for urbanisation produces the question: why cities?

The merits of urbanisation may also be its cause too. An inquiry into the advantages of urbanisation is an inquiry, first, into the benefits cities have to offer. It is on some scale to an investigation into the disadvantages of rural areas. For although rural-urban migration happens, ideally, because of the attractiveness of urban areas, it may also occur, negatively, due to the harshness of rural centres. Opponents of urbanisation, mostly find themselves arguing against the latter, the type that happens due to rural flight—the type termed pathological urbanisation. Urbanisation is at its best when driven by the advantages that cities have to offer than the disadvantages villages have offered to rural dwellers. And it is for the former that proponents of urbanisation, the present writer inclusive, argue.

The benefits cities—even the poorest of them—have to offer include, in more abstract terms, convenience, proximity, diversity (of services, opportunities, and of cultures), marketplace competition, density, wealth, et al. In tangible terms, cities are considered ideal for they are the hearts of modern economic activities: variety of jobs (formal and informal), myriad of services (specialised services not found in rural areas, better education, hospitals, and transport systems, trade, tourism, ports, banking systems, etc), better housing and safety conditions. The cultural advancement typical of cities means better conditions for women and children. Women stand a better chance of attaining full equality with men in cities than in villages.

Grid road of Busan city

On the other hand, damaging conditions such as unpredictable climate conditions faced by rural areas, accompanied with lack of sophisticated agricultural equipment—in the case of African countries especially—to beat this unpredictability of the weather; the lack of modern amenities, poor healthcare and educational systems; widespread diseases, little value placed on and given to farming which is the main economic activities in rural centres, etc. make the countryside unattractive. Rural areas are generally lacking in the things that make cities attractive. In developing countries, more so than the developed world, these disparities between rural and urban areas are even more heightened.

“Why cities?’ is a query into how cities are formed

What do these locations possess which make them better candidates as cities? What are the criteria for selection? What does Accra, Abuja have over the Saboba District, and Sokoto, respectively? If cities are this vital to national growth, why not merely convert villages into cities? Why the placing of the tag ‘cities’ on a select group of localities? Do these locations possess an intrinsic urbanness which those designated as villages do not possess? It turns out so. Cities do not form from a toss of a coin; there are reasons, chief among them, geographical reasons to their formation. Cities typically locate around the coasts, rivers, lakes and other forms of waterways so as to benefit from transportation cost advantages.

Industrialisation/ urbanisation: the bedfellows.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, what existed as the main economic activity for developed countries was agriculture. In 18th-century-Mesopotamia and Egypt, for instance, the main economic activity was subsistence agriculture which occurred in rural centres. The urban areas, then very sparsely populated, were centres for small-scale trade and the then-budding manufacturing sector.

Prior to 18th-19th-century-Britain when industrialisation found its footing, and urbanisation, its feet, the country was largely agrarian and, consequently, mainly rural. Populations of developed nations, in general, were largely rural during their agricultural ages. Why so? Were these ancestors possessed of profound meekness that made them opt for rural centres—meekness of which recent generation are too high-and-mighty to submit to? No. These examples rather show a trend: economic activities dictate migration trends. The agricultural economy is to rural areas as industrial and service economy is to urban areas. Thus a shift, globally, from an agrarian economy to industrial and service economy means a shift from rural to an urban population. The stifling of rural-urban migration, then, is an inhibition of these 21st-century leading economic activities.

Industrialisation is symptomatic of urbanisation; the opposite is true—both phenomenon too, symptomatic of economic growth and development. Experience shows that urbanisation is not just the movement of people in a vacuum, but it has to it certain social, economic, and environmental changes which may either be beneficial or adversarial to a country depending on the country’s ability to effectively formulate policies to spur economic growth. Urbanisation, like industrialisation, is no new phenomenon, yet it has managed to hit the African continent like an obscure storm. What are we doing wrong? What did the developed world do right?

Hell is a city much like—developing cities?

African leaders want a reverse to urbanisation, they say. A survey of the world population policies by the UN conducted in 2011 found that 82% of governments of developing nations and 84% of African countries had implemented policies to curb urbanisation. Only 3% of African countries had undertaken policies to encourage rural-urban migration. It is not surprising that a large portion of African leaders proved anti-urban. For a question on their stance on urbanisation, to these political leaders, carry, glaringly, this subtext: why have you been ineffective in transforming your nation’s urbanisation trends into economic growth?  A diversion of blame is then the better of two evils—blame urbanisation for the slums, the persistence of crime, pestilence, and unemployment—call those the only fruits urbanisation can bear! This seems to be the African approach.

This inquisition is key: what secret ingredients did developed countries possess at the dawn of their national lives which helped transform urbanisation into economic growth? It is no secret that policies, urban infrastructure, and planning are some major tools employed by the developed world. Industrialisation is a point very much hammered on throughout the entirety of this article. Another policy direction—effective urban planning. Cities ought to be planned beforehand—amenities and infrastructures and transportation systems must be provided for. Steps must be put in place to help curb rural flight.  A call for attention to cities is not a submission for the abandonment of rural centres and the agricultural economy. Opportunities must be created in rural areas to make them economically viable places.

Urbanisation, like any other trend, may, though efficiently managed, still manage to spawn some negative effects. This is not to serve as a deterrent to nations, but rather as hurdles to be crossed to attain development. These hurdles, if not efficiently combated, in turn, spawn detrimental incidences for a country. The problems of congestion of cities, an initial increase in inequalities, an initial dramatic increase in costs, etc. are inevitable by-products of urbanisation. Yet their potential adverse effects of persistent slums, high costs of living, increase in crime, etc. can be avoided. Housing issues are likely to spring up with urbanisation. By 1980, Korea, for example, was experiencing such disparity between its cost of housing and GDP—with a bewildering 13:1 ratio. Government intervention saw the reduction of this gap to about 3:1. The Korean government achieved this by designating 25% of the country’s land as urban and building two million houses within the span of just seven years.

The influx of labour may easily lead to high unemployment rates if a nation does not act effectively to curb this. In fact, this theory of increased inequality is quite the ingrained phenomenon—a phenomenon termed the Kuznets Curve. The theory suggests that as nations grow, the gap between urban and rural areas first increases, then eventually decreases. The USA, for instance, witnessed such inequality in the mid-19th century, but this was to eventually reduce with hands-on governmental interventions. In fact, these potential side effects of urbanisation do not end at a country’s attainment of sustainable development—thus the phenomenon of suburbanisation in developed countries like the USA, where policies are put in place to help strike out the negative effects of urbanisation all the while enjoying its advantages.

With some persistence, policy directions, and prerequisite funding, Africa too can benefit from urbanisation. It has been estimated that an amount of $130-170 billion annually would be required to solve the continent’s infrastructure problems. The question of where to get this money is daunting. This, however, is not a call for anti-urbanisation sentiments, for that is no option for developing countries in this highly industrialised age.

Like any other economic trend, urbanisation requires good governance to blossom into sustainable growth. Urbanisation is an experiment in hope—it is to the immigrant, supposed to be a journey from an agrarian green to the greenbacks of the city, yet for the African continent, and its constituent countries and citizenries, it has been a journey from green to grey…

Is Urbanisation a bad thing?

Author’s information:

Co-founder, Blarney Stone Inc. (BSI Africa)

makafuiaikins1@gmail.com

Blarney Stone, Inc. is an incorporated private partnership founded on a promise to, inter alia, design programmes aimed at re-socialising the Ghanaian and African by utilising this 21st-century leading tool—the television, to instil a sense of patriotism and inclusiveness in the citizenry.

www.blarneystoneinc.com