Urban Futures and State Fragility

The twenty first century will be dominated by urban issues. The world as a whole has already surpassed the 50 percent level for urbanized population, and many developing countries already have two-thirds or more of their populations in cities. In many of the world’s fragile states – places like Yemen, Afghanistan, and key countries in Africa – these rates are much lower (i.e. 15-35 percent).

One of the key themes facing fragile states is the pace and character of urbanization. In some cases, rural-to-urban migration and structural economic changes may occur very slowly; there is nothing inevitable about urbanization. In more of these fragile states, though, substantial growth of cities will continue roughly in parallel with the global trend. How will this rapid urbanization affect fragile states? What themes will be particularly important in the coming decades?

The swelling of these cities will put a spotlight on local governance. Mundane issues like sanitation, transportation, and urban planning often do not get the attention that they deserve. Effective, accountable governance at the urban scale will be critically important in this century. And, even with capable, clean civil servants and leaders, urban planning in these contexts will be extraordinarily challenging.

In terms of culture, rapid urbanization will require the effective management of identity politics. The burgeoning mega-cities found in fragile states are often located in one sub-national group’s homeland. Newcomers will require adequate access to housing, social services, and the urban labor market. While this urbanization process can offer a true opportunity to forge a more unified nation, the compressed timelines of urban growth offer a serious constraint.

At the national scale, fragile states will need to pay close attention to two issues that have haunted other developing states: 1) urban bias and 2) over-concentration of growth in a single city (called a “primate city”).

Urban bias occurs when public resources and infrastructure are unduly focused in cities. Some urban bias is inevitable, but it should not lead to the neglect of agricultural development or rural communities. More balanced rural-urban development can be a key way to cultivate a more manageable pace of urbanization.

Finally, states with a single overwhelmingly dominant city need to facilitate the growth of other urban centers that can lead to more balanced development across regions and more livable cities. States like Ethiopia, the DRC, Afghanistan, and North Korea would do well to facilitate a more evenly distributed system of cities. Smaller, more manageable urban areas can ease pressures on local planners and help unify various regions of the state.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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