Beyond the Urban Tipping Point

Jo Beall, Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis, and Ravi Kanbur

By many estimates, the world has just crossed the point where more than half the global population is urban, a trend driven by rapid urbanization in developing countries. Urban centres offer economies of scale in terms of productive enterprise and public investment. Cities are social melting pots, centres of innovation, and drivers of social change. However, cities are also marked by social differentiation, poverty, conflict, and environmental degradation. These are all issues that not only matter to cities but also lie at the heart of development.

Multidisciplinary approaches and interdisciplinarity are essential to capture and understand these changes in urbanization and their implications for development, including poverty reduction.
That is the goal of our new UNU-WIDER book Urbanization and Development: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, just published by Oxford University Press. The book will be launched at the London School of Economics on 6 October 2011. The study addresses four key questions.

What is so special about the urban context?

We highlight proximity, density, diversity, dynamics, and complexity as the key features that characterize the urban context. If anything, the three Ds—density, diversity, and dynamics—are probably the irreducible characteristics of the urban context, since density carries within it proximity and complexity. Important though they are as separate categories for analysis, proximity, complexity, and other features of urbanism are ultimately the result of density, diversity, and dynamics. These key characteristics span the different disciplinary approaches. Economists focus more on density (agglomeration effects) and dynamics (migration). The broader social sciences pay greater attention to diversity and heterogeneity in the urban population, and how this interacts with density and dynamics to produce urban politics, culture, social relationships and change.

Why is urbanization important for development today?

In 1900, just 13 per cent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. The UN projects that 4.9 billion people will live in cities by 2030, representing 60 per cent of the global population. In a globalized world, the sources for efficiency and dynamic growth are increasingly in urban centres. However, poverty in low- and middle-income countries is increasingly taking on an urban character. Urban centres of population concentration, particularly those of the poor, will be especially vulnerable to climatic catastrophes. And cities have become sites of violence and criminality and, perhaps, sites of ‘urban wars of the 21st century’ (a theme in the work of Jo Beall). Both on the positive and the negative sides, therefore, cities loom large among the development challenges of coming decades.

What are the limitations of our current knowledge?

The UNU-WIDER volume tries to steer a middle course between utopian excesses of a rosy, urbanized future and the doom-saying of the ‘urban noir’ viewpoint. The urban setting, towards which the world seems to be moving inexorably, presents opportunities as well as challenges. The different disciplines considered in this volume have developed a great deal of detailed knowledge about the urban setting, and also about the impact of different policy instruments on well-being in cities. However, it seems to us that each discipline—and the disciplines taken together—lacks an adequate framework for addressing broad questions on the balance between urban and rural orientation in public expenditure and policy. Different advocacy groups prioritize ‘rural development’ or ‘urbanization’, and each side has its analytical supporters, but the difficult policy question of where to deploy scarce public resources is still an open question.

How does an interdisciplinarity perspective add value?

It should be abundantly clear that no one discipline can encompass the proximity, density, diversity, dynamics, and complexity that characterize cities and define the urban. For a complete understanding, we need economists with their toolkits of rational choice, scale economies, and agglomeration externalities; sociologists for their exploration of group dynamics and social constraints on individual choice; anthropologists and their focus on ritual and contextualized meaning in explaining behaviour; political scientists and their analyses of coalitions and urban politics; and, of course, geographers, for whom space and place are the organizing principles of discourse and analysis.

Through the UNU-WIDER volume, we hope to have shown that urban realities, urban evolution, and urban policy imperatives are sufficiently complex and multi-faceted to require the strengths of each of a number of disciplines. There is considerable value added in using each discipline to complement the others. It is, however, only a first step. Interdisciplinarity—the integration of different approaches to develop a deeper analysis of the urban condition—is clearly, as yet, some distance off in the study of urbanization and development.

Critical to advancing research on urban development is for economists to inform their data analysis with insights from the broad social sciences, which allows them to accommodate the messiness and complexity of city life and the urban context in which choices (rational or otherwise) are made. By the same token, sociologists and anthropologists need to scale up household- and community-level studies to embrace dynamics at the metropolitan level, while political scientists need to disaggregate national-level data and findings to the level of the city.
In doing so, and by taking on board methodological insights and tools from across the social sciences, it will be possible to generate deeper understanding of the urban condition. This will lead to more coherent policy repertoires operative across a range of scales but focused on cities.

About the authors

Jo Beall is Director, Education and Society at the British Council, London.

Basudeb Guha-Khasnobis is Professor of Economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.

Ravi Kanbur is T.H. Lee Professor of World Affairs at Cornell University, Ithaca.

WIDER Angle newsletter
September 2011
ISSN 1238-9544