The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum


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.

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 andresources.

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

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 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

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 verybroad.


This urgency has been
acknowledged by the African Union member states. Two years ago the grouping
, 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 fewyears.

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 offocus.

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 HabitatIII 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 maybe.

* Original