Commentary

The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum

In the Habitat III negotiations, we must see urban and rural areas as inherently interlinked — two sides of the same continuum.

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The 21st century is being dubbed the “urban century”, and the world is correctly paying significant new attention to the challenge of urbanization. Evidence of this can been seen in the inclusion of an “urban” goal in the new Sustainable Development Goals, intended to form the globally agreed framework that will guide development for the next decade and a half.

Two questions that have exercised many minds, however, is why there is today such a preoccupation with the “urban” areas — and what this means for their “rural” counterparts. In the face of this perceived fixation on the urban agenda, increased concern is being expressed about the fate of the rural areas.

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The answer is really quite simple. Consideration of “urban” and “rural” as two separate or competing areas is misguided and misleading. Urban and rural do not constitute a dichotomy. They are two parts of a continuum that must be seen as an indivisible sequence of human settlements at different scales, characterized by two-way flows of people and resources.

Urban and rural are inextricably linked and cannot be dealt with separately from one another. They are economically, socially and environmentally interdependent.

The importance of this continuum has been acknowledged by the political leadership across Africa. This was most recently emphasized at preparatory negotiations ahead of next year’s Habitat III conference on cities. In a statement to the “PrepCom II” plenary, South Africa, speaking on behalf of the member states of the African Union, noted that one of the six principles listed as underpinning the desired outcomes of Habitat III was that “it has to encompass the entire continuum of human settlements.”

“The increasing importance of the urban agenda must not be ignored. But planning for a sustainable urban future cannot be done without addressing the complex linkages across all scales of human settlement.”

The need for special consideration of the urban agenda is driven by an acknowledgment that changes in our urban areas are profound and, in this century, will affect people on a scale never before seen. In the 53 countries of the Commonwealth alone, we are urbanizing at a rate of 26 million people per year.

Africa as a continent will see similar levels of urbanization over the next 20 years, with as many as 422 million people expected to become urban during this period. Cities such as Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, are expected to double in size in less than 15 years.

The challenge of such rapid urbanization — and the consequences of not preparing for this process — is of global significance. Not building the correct foundation through planning for the development we know will happen will perpetuate poverty and the proliferation of slums, the unsustainable sprawl of urban areas and the inadequate provision of infrastructure. The consequences of these failures for health, safety and security will be very broad.

Not zero-sum

This urgency has been acknowledged by the African Union member states. Two years ago the grouping adopted Agenda 2063, which aims to facilitate a paradigm shift in delivering sustainable urbanization. As a consequence, the vision includes a focus on the “urbanization agenda” rather than just the “urban agenda”.

At the same time, the consequences of these changes for rural areas cannot be ignored; nor can we ignore the rapid changes occurring in rural areas themselves. The increasing footprint of cities is eroding food-producing areas in many places, with food security becoming an increasingly important issue as far afield as Canada, South Africa and Australia. Catchment planning, to protect water supplies, will become increasingly critical to serve burgeoning metropolitan regions, and there are other impacts too.

Meanwhile, the depopulation of rural areas, the declining number of farmers in many countries, and the corporatization of agriculture are having equally profound impacts in rural areas. In France, for example, the agricultural labour force has diminished by about 60 percent since the 1970s, and the number of farms has fallen from 2.3 million in the 1950s to 735,000 in 1995. At the same time, the average size of farms has increased.

In New Zealand, the number of dairy farms is expected to fall by nearly 40 percent within the next 15 years. In Sweden, as many as half of all farms are expected to go out of business in the next decade. And in the corn-producing Mindanao region of the Philippines, Oxfam estimates a fall of as much as 50 percent in the number of farm households over just the next few years.

This is clearly not a zero-sum process. For this reason, the proposed Sustainable Development Goal 11 — “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” — includes Target 11.a: “Support positive economic, social and environmental links between urban, peri-urban and rural areas by strengthening national and regional development planning.”

Urban centres, whether small rural clusters or large metropolitan conglomerations, are focal points of economic growth, places of opportunity that allow agglomeration economies to develop. Therefore, it is critical that we strengthen planning and develop strong linkages between these centres in order that the development potential of each can be maximized. In this way, full consideration can be given to the development needs of all areas along the continuum, and the economic, social and environmental linkages between them can be strengthened.

Despite the changes occurring in rural areas, the rural population of Africa remains significant. Indeed, it is expected to grow at a similar rate to the urban population — some 420 million in the next 20 years. Much of that growth is occurring in small rural clusters of less than 20,000 people, however. As such, these small agglomerations are rapidly becoming the nuclei of urban growth, and they form an important emerging area of focus.

Context-relevant planning

Planning that is both integrated and relevant to context thus becomes essential if we are to meet the development needs of all parts of the continuum. For this reason, the New Urban Agenda, the intended outcome of the Habitat III conference, clearly stresses integration and context as key principles underpinning planning for a sustainable urban future.

The International Guidelines for Urban and Territorial Planning, which were approved at the UN-Habitat Governing Council in Nairobi last month, reflects this synergistic thinking. These guidelines are premised on the notion that urban areas are planned in an integrated manner.

The guidelines include references to “balanced systems of cities and other human settlements”. They discuss connections, clustering, synergies, “economies of scale and agglomeration among neighbouring cities and with their rural hinterland”. And they talk too of “urban-rural complementarities”.

The increasing importance of the urban agenda must not be ignored. But planning for a sustainable urban future cannot be done without addressing the complex linkages across all scales of human settlement. There is no conundrum if we recognize the interconnectedness of the places we live in, regardless of how big or small they may be.

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Christine Platt

Editor’s note: Christine Platt of South Africa — former president of the Commonwealth Association of Planners — is a leading activist and theorist on the global urban scene. She is also a member of Citiscope’s board of directors.