As populations multiply, governments must tackle urbanisation

As the global urban population continues to swell, rising economic powers are struggling to cope with the human cost of agglomeration. To secure affordable housing for city workers, governments must combat urban sprawl

The Pyramids at Giza, where construction has increased due to overcrowding
The Pyramids at Giza, where construction has increased due to overcrowding 

Global demographics are shifting rapidly. As populations continue to multiply on every continent, people are turning to the supposed prosperity of their nation’s super cities. These migratory patterns are pushing some urban areas beyond breaking point. Today, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in an urbanised area (see Fig. 1). By 2050, that number is expected to leap another 12 percent, accounting for some six billion people. Projections indicate another 2.5 billion people would join the globe’s megacities as a result of that expansion – with close to 90 percent of that increase in developing nations across Africa and Southeast Asia.

Fresh research conducted by the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs indicates at least a third of population growth in the next thirty years will be in India, China and Nigeria. Many areas within these nations are already starting to buckle under infrastructural demands that have become nigh impossible to meet. Much-needed transportation links, energy development, healthcare provisions and local schools are all operating under capacity, fuelling urban deprivation.

Yet the single greatest issue facing the world’s impending urbanisation relates to housing. Because governments are failing to adequately plan for rampant urban growth, hundreds of millions of people are being relegated to lives of penury. At present, some 1.6 billion people have been forced to take refuge in substandard urban housing; worse still, over 100 million people are now homeless. Without adequate housing, cities are swiftly transforming from thriving economic hubs into sprawling capitals of deprivation. With those underserved populations set to expand in coming decades, both municipal and federal governments are racing to upgrade their housing stocks before up-and-coming megacities burst at the seams. Some answers to the problem are more viable than others.

Where the Pyramids at Giza once stood alone in the open desert, shoddy high-rise housing and an unauthorised cemetery now encroach

Planning is vital
One perceived solution is to relax planning standards. However, that practice may be a self-inflicted shot in the foot for many developing countries. Indian megacity New Delhi is an apt example. Home to 25 million people – more than the entire population of nearby Australia – Delhi has long struggled to meet the needs of its burgeoning population. Much like the city of London, Delhi boasts a thriving real estate sector. Yet evidence suggests the homes trading hands across the city don’t meet the financial limitations of those who need them most.

Meanwhile, affordable housing initiatives are floundering as a result of divisive party politics. In 2009, for example, Delhi’s municipal government sanctioned the immediate construction of 65,000 new affordable houses. Five years on, less than a third of those homes have been built. Critics have slated the municipal government for refusing to utilise federal subsidies and imposing bureaucratic policies on land acquisition. Despite the government’s paralysis, Delhi’s population continues to swell; city officials have recently started to overlook illegal construction projects.

Over the last decade, a combination of relaxed and unenforced planning policies has deteriorated the structural quality of Delhi’s architecture. Shoddy tenement blocks litter the city’s outskirts – without stringent regulatory oversight these poorly planned towers are endangering the city’s low-income households. In June, five children and five adults died in the suburb of Inderlok after a four-story building buckled under the weight of its tenants. In other developing urban areas, poorly regulated building plans are causing even bigger problems.

Construction taking place around the Opera House in Oslo
Construction taking place around the Opera House in Oslo


Boasting a population of 18.5 million, the Egyptian capital of Cairo is one of the globe’s top 10 biggest metropolitan areas. It’s also one of the developing world’s most dangerous urban environments. In the last 20 years, collapsed housing has been responsible for nearly 30,000 injuries and 1,500 deaths. Last year alone, 468 real estate developments collapsed. With affordable housing options disappearing, the Ministry of Housing has responded by giving the thumbs up to virtually every building project that crosses its desk. As a result, the cultural legacy of one of the globe’s oldest civilisations is rapidly dissipating. Where the Pyramids at Giza once stood alone in the open desert, shoddy high-rise housing and an unauthorised cemetery now encroach. Lax planning rules are causing both loss of life and loss of heritage; municipalities must find new housing solutions. The simplest option may be to discourage people from moving to the big city in the first place.

Reduce, reuse, recycle
Developed nations are struggling to come to terms with increasing levels of urbanisation, too. Within the next 15 years, London’s population is anticipated to reach 10 million – and with the city’s high real estate prices soaring by more than 20 percent every year, fears of an impending housing shortage are well-founded. To meet demand, the city needs an annual 63,000 new homes. At present, just a third of those homes are materialising. Yet municipalities and the UK government are already exploring creative incentives to make up for that shortfall. One proposal being lobbied is the construction of tens of thousands of new suburban properties specially designed for pensioners. By introducing tax breaks for downsizing, the government hopes to free up to 100,000 under-occupied homes for young families across London.

Last year, local councils were given the power to charge a 50 percent tax on the city’s 80,000 empty properties to encourage owners to use the buildings. Likewise, in June the UK Treasury announced it was streamlining the rollout of some 50,000 new London homes by building on unused brown land sites. Without compromising building standards, this drive to redevelop underused property is slowly tackling population growth; however, a government’s greatest weapon in the war on agglomeration is regional investment.

Source: CIA World Factbook. Notes: 2013 figures
Source: CIA World Factbook. Notes: 2013 figures

Controversy surrounds the £16bn HS2 project. Designed to link eight of the UK’s largest cities, the high-speed rail line is supposed to prevent the need for businesses and their workers to migrate down to the nation’s commercial capital, rebalancing the UK’s economy between north and south.

Yet the perceived benefits may not fulfil their promise if similar investment is not made to maintain the regional industry of those cities. For lessons on how to do so, Westminster would do well to look to the Nordic states. Over the last decade, Norway has been particularly active in discouraging the further urbanisation of Oslo, which already houses over a quarter of the country’s population. Each year, the government now invests hundreds of millions to subsidise 12 ‘centres of expertise’ in less populated areas of the country.

These have allowed rural communities to attract aspiring workers away from Oslo with high-yield, world-class enterprises such as micro and nanotechnology, deep-sea engineering, aquaculture and cancer research. Consequently, not only does Norway now boast one of the highest employment rates in Europe, but it also maintains a manageable rate of urbanisation.

Constructing a solution
The world is becoming smaller every day. Twenty years ago, there were only ten megacities in the world that housed no more than 10 million inhabitants apiece. By 2030, forecasts indicate the number of global megacities will have shot up to 41. Yet without the implementation of adequate urban planning measures, these rampantly expanding agglomeration zones will only serve to widen the global poverty divide. A severe lack of local amenities and affordable housing are letting cities down and slowing the economic development of would-be global leaders – and if municipal governments should ever hope to validate growth with prosperity, they have got to facilitate some form of long-term strategy.

Relaxed building standards are not a viable option. Up-and-coming megacities have little choice but to pursue the recovery of unused or under-occupied space in the name of affordable housing. Long-term sustainable growth, on the other hand, can only be secured by encouraging regional development outside urban hubs. The world is changing, and urbanisation cannot be stifled. Yet if municipalities care for the welfare of their citizens, investment must be made to discourage further agglomeration and promote regional growth. The clock is ticking.

Construction surrounding Oslo, Norway
Construction surrounding Oslo, Norway