‘Urban-rural continuum’ essential to achieving New Urban Agenda

Chongqing, China, is recognized as a leader in planning that connects rural areas to the urban core. (HelloRF Zcool/shutterstock)

Urban and rural areas are often seen as opposites, tied together only by how different one is from the other.

But a recent report from UN-Habitat argues that way of thinking is all wrong. In fact, it says, the urban-rural divide needs to be reimagined as a harmonious continuum, where policies and programmes aimed at helping people on one side can help people on the other side as well.

The report is called Implementing the new Urban Agenda by Strengthening Urban-Rural Linkages. It says stronger urban-rural partnerships are central to achieving two major international agreements, the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda. Without improved collaboration, too many poor people in informal settlements on the periphery of cities will be left behind, the authors warn.

“As a driver of development and poverty reduction, urbanization can bring prosperity to many regions,” UN-Habitat head Joan Clos writes in the foreword. “It is thus urgent that cities plan and strengthen synergies between urban and rural areas.”

There are many issues on which urban and rural areas can find common cause, from human migration to agriculture to the flow of consumer goods. More integrated regional planning efforts can lead to better disaster prevention and response efforts, wider access to healthy food, comprehensive environmental protection strategies and more.

Yet municipal planning and development can be shortsighted. Urban visions often fail to encompass adjacent rural areas that may lack basic public services and access to schools and medical facilities. The authors contend that this is a mistake because “urban and rural spaces are inextricably linked economically, socially and environmentally”. Their needs “cannot be adequately dealt with in isolation from one another”, they argue.

The report profiles several cities that have successfully woven outlying areas into municipal strategies. Among the highlights are:

  • Chongqing’s master plan: To address urban-rural inequalities, this Chinese megacity adopted a master plan that emphasizes affordable housing for low-income residents, including rural migrants. Roads, water supply and other infrastructure also were improved for small- and medium-sized communities that ring the city.
  • Dar-es-Salaam’s embrace of agriculture: With drought a constant threat, Tanzania’s largest city promotes urban farming as a way to promote food security. The concept is integral to its land-use policies. Small gardens in homes and vacant lots create economic opportunity and produce 90 percent of Dar-es-Salaam’s vegetables.
  • Bobo Dioulasso’s fight against ‘desertification’: The second largest municipality in Burkina Faso is pursuing reforestation to blunt the impacts of desert expansion linked to climate change. Three “green corridors” run north, west and east of the city.
  • Tamale’s public services: This fast-growing metropolis of 360,000 in northern Ghana pursues a comprehensive approach to city planning. Essential public services are being extended to poor neighbourhoods in the urban core, as well as to outlying areas on the urban periphery. The goal is to stay ahead of rapid urbanization to prevent the spread of informal settlements.

The stakes for the world’s most vulnerable populations are enormous. While more than half of humanity lives in cities, 85 percent of the world’s poor are in rural areas, the report says.

To improve urban-rural synergies, local, regional and national governments must craft policy frameworks that outline common objectives for communities that comprise metropolitan areas. The process should be participatory, highlight best practices and encourage investment and innovation.

Transport, energy, water, economic growth, supply chains and even tourism all can be part of region-wide planning. Informal cooperation is another way to encourage information-sharing among cities and across jurisdictions.

The authors also underscore the need for flexible forms of governance that enable “inter-municipal cooperation”. Creating or overhauling legal frameworks can improve governance by safeguarding the rights of ethnic groups, slum dwellers and women while clamping down on bribes and other forms of corruption.

National urban policies can help spur urbanization, UN-Habitat says. But decentralization that allows cities to make independent decisions on unplanned growth, migration shifts and other challenges also is seen as important.

The authors urge city leaders to treat regional and territorial planning as more than just a rote exercise. The decision-making process should be participatory and include input from stakeholders that span from national governments, NGOs and the private sector to groups that represent everyday citizens, including the interests of women.

“The development gap between urban and rural areas is still large and urgently needs to be bridged,” the authors warn. “It is widely acknowledged that urban growth has a positive impact on economic development, but still most of the world’s poor live in rural areas.”

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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