On the streets of Shimla, residents stare at a strange group of visitors. The group looks and acts different from other tourists to this hilly capital of India’s mountain state of Himachal Pradesh.
Not Indian, and definitely not the usual European retirees. Oh, and even stranger, the group starts taking photos of parking lots, trash cans, and the tiny alleys that snake up and down the city.
That was how a group of global experts in a gamut of urban matters appeared to the citizens of Shimla. It was the group’s first day in a town they had never seen, nor ever imagined they would visit.
But here they were - experts at solid waste management, urban parking, public transportation, IT and city planning - at the request of the government of Himachal Pradesh (HP). HP is renowned for its pleasant climes, verdant forests and snow-clad peaks that not only act as a carbon sink for India’s burgeoning economy but also serve as a source of five perennial rivers that sustain the lives of million in the teeming plains below.
The inspiration for the experts’ visit came from the highest levels of the state government. Dr. Shrikant Baldi, the state’s additional chief secretary, had visited Korea to attend a global green growth conference sponsored by the World Bank. There he saw the real-life application of strategies that his government needed to take their own green growth agenda forward.
On a foggy winter morning in Dhaka, 41-year-old Jahid was sipping tea by a roadside stall.
“Life was very peaceful back in my village,” he reminisced, “but there was no work, so I moved to Dhaka. Even if I live in a slum, my children are better off here.”
Jahid is one of the 500,000 people that move to Dhaka city each year. Driven by the promise of economic opportunity as well as poverty in rural and coastal areas, it is estimated that half the population of Bangladesh will migrate to urban areas by 2030.
Urbanization can be catalyst for growth. Density – the clustering of firms and workers – can drive productivity, innovation and job creation. It is the benefits of agglomeration that once drew the country’s most important industry – the ready-made garments sector to Dhaka city.
However, it is the costs from congestion that are now pushing factories away, mainly to peri-urban areas. Why are factory owners leaving?
For starters, the tide of new migrants has overwhelmed urban infrastructure, basic services, as well as the stock of affordable housing – eroding the both the livability and competitiveness of Dhaka city. A recent World Bank report described South Asia’s urbanization trajectory as “messy and hidden” – reflected in the large-scale proliferation of slums and urban sprawl.
For centuries, cities have been the beacon for economic prosperity. Drawn by the promise of economic, social and political opportunity, more than half the world’s population live in cities today. In India alone, 90 million people migrated from farms to cities in the last decade. The prospect of higher wages and better living standards is expected to draw 250 million more by 2030.
Urban success is based on economies of agglomeration -- where density increases the ease of moving goods, people, and ideas – increasing productivity. However, compared to other emerging economies, Indian cities do not appear to have captured gains from economic concentration. While the service sector and high-tech manufacturing have benefitted from agglomeration more than other sectors, overall urban productivity has not kept pace with India’s economic growth. In fact, the urban share of national employment has not increased between 1993 and 2006.
Are the costs of density overwhelming the benefits from clustering?
Within the next 30 years, urban populations in developing countries will double and UN-Habitat estimates that around 3 billion people will need housing and basic infrastructure. Already, 70% of existing housing in developing countries is built informally without appropriate structural standards. Thus, the challenge lies in reconciling informal settlements with existing and future planned environments.
In light of these challenges, the South Asia urban team at the World Bank, as part of its urbanization webinar series, organized a discussion on “Upgrading Housing in Informal Settlements.” This webinar highlighted the challenges of upgrading housing in informal settlements, and shared lessons from around the globe where targeted policy interventions and grassroots movements have mobilized resources to create success stories. Guest speakers and experts around the world joined the discussion on informal settlements.
On the second day of the three day regional workshop on affordable land and housing in Thimphu, Bhutan, country representatives continued to share policies and projects that their countries have devised and implemented and with that, the ideas that have or have not worked. One common theme was the interest in the development of secondary cities either around the periphery of rapidly urbanizing growth centers or as growth nodes strategically located along infrastructure such as regional transportation networks to create a ‘system of cities’. These growth centers often present a wealth of opportunities for the poor who flock to the cities from villages with the aspirations of a better life. However, this influx often strains the city’s services and infrastructure at an unsustainable rate.
There is little empirical regularity that is as universal as the following: no matter what the path of economic development a country has followed, urbanization has been an inevitable consequence across the world. Already half the world’s population is urban. Currently, Asia and Africa are the least urbanized regions, but they are expected to reach their respective tipping points–that is when their urban populations will exceed the rural population–in 2023 and 2030. While the urban transition occurs with diverse growth patterns at different times, the real challenge for governments is to take actions that allow residents to make the most of living in cities.
The relationship between urbanization and economic development has long been a popular issue of debate. Should a developing country encourage urbanization? While this is a real dilemma in Bangladesh, because of a highly unfavorable land-population balance, the only alternative Bangladesh has to urbanization is urbanization. The question is not whether Bangladesh should urbanize; the question is how Bangladesh will handle the challenges of urbanization.
At the 9th South Asia Economics Students' Meet on Green Growth, participants shared their vision about South Asian cities of the future. These are their innovative ideas.
Without taking care of the environment we are shaving digits off GDP and, therefore, limiting our very potential for the future.
Economic growth in South Asia is driven primarily by exports which has led to expanded production requirements needed to fuel an ever increasing amount of trade. This has accelerated the environmental degradation of many countries in the region. Gradual environmental degradation, climate change and diminishing natural resources create extra pressure to adopt different approaches in supporting the export-driven economic activities. The past axiom of “grow first, clean up later” cannot run more in a region which has limited natural resources and a rapidly growing population directly dependent on natural resources. These countries are now shouldering an increasingly greater share of regional and global environmental production-related burdens.
It is a paradox that India which is among the most densely populated countries in the world, is also among the least urbanized. The figure below compares urbanization rates with income for more than 100 countries. It shows that an increase in urbanization rate is positively associated with real per capita income. This is the iron law of development—i.e., growth is associated with the reallocation of labor and capital away from traditional (rural) sectors to modern (urban) sectors. Spatial transformations that give rise to urbanization accelerate growth because households and firms benefit from scale economies, mobility, and specialization. Increased urbanization contributes to growth, job creation and poverty reduction. This can indeed become a virtuous circle.