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Managing Social Transformations in Cities
Average reader rating: 7  
by Céline Sachs-Jeantet 03 the future of Urban Development

A Challenge to Social Sciences

We are entering a new era, the era of cities, a major civilizational transition. By the year 2000, half of humanity - 3.2 billion people - will be living in cities. Seventy per cent of this urban population will be in developing countries. Eighteen cities in the developing world will have a population of more than ten million.

Given the unprecedented urban explosion in the South, the magnitude of the task ahead is illustrated by the following figures. According to the United Nations estimates, the number of urban dwellers in the South will have doubled from 1980 to the year 2000: from one to two billion. A second doubling is likely to occur in the following twenty-five years, from two to four billion. In less than half a century, three billion people will be added to the urban population of the South. At the beginning of the 21st century, low-income people in Third World cities, many of them crowded in mega-cities, will become the new majority among the world's population.

Each of the continents is affected in a somewhat different way. In several Latin American countries, the degree of urbanization has reached the levels of Europe and North America. In Africa, the rates of urban growth are excessively high. In Asia, the share size of the population involved is staggering. Nonetheless, this diversity of configurations provides an opportunity for internationally comparative research to gain insight into the contrasting patterns of accelerated social transformations going on in cities throughout the world.

"By 1990, an estimated 1.4 billion people lived in urban centers in the Third World. Of these, at least 600 million are estimated to live in 'life and health threatening' homes and neighborhoods because of the inadequacies in the quality of the housing and in the provision of infrastructure and services associated with housing and residential areas (such as piped water supplies, provision for sanitation, garbage collection and site drainage, paved roads and pavements, schools and health clinics)". (Arrossi, et al., 1994, p.3; see also Hardoy et al., 1990).

Cities, mirrors of society, reflect maldevelopment and the price of modernity (Touraine, 1992). The predominant picture is one of fragmented or dual cities, characterized by phenomena of social exclusion, spatial segregation and mounting urban violence. The form that economic growth and social change have taken has been critical to the emergence of new problems in cities.

This dismal picture is by no means exclusive to developing countries, even though scales are different between the South and the North, East and West. The focus of a recent OECD report is on the severe concentrations of disadvantage, unemployment, poverty and alienation in many cities throughout OECD Member countries and on the scope for policies to encourage urban regeneration, social integration and the development of more livable environments (OECD, 1994; also Jacquier, 1991; Wieviorka, 1994).

A report of the Commission of the European Communities on the functions of cities in the European Community states that "during the next decade, as Europe moves towards greater economic and political integration, cities will be even more crucial players... They will also be the focus of many acute problems in the 1990s... The future of Europe will substantially reflect that of its cities. Their enormous economic, social and cultural energy must be harnessed to promote social and economic cohesion throughout the European Community. Cities demand a prominent place on its future agenda" (CEC, 1992). Cities are a major political challenge for both the North and the South.

The urban explosion compounded with severe environmental degradation - the urban poor are the main victims of environmental disruption - will have to be dealt with in a world economy characterized by low rates of growth, mounting unemployment, the pains of structural adjustment and debt servicing, as well as the need in many countries to implement institutional reforms. The prospect for the cities will, to a great extent, depend on local solutions found for these global problems. It is clear, however, that the urban problem, as well as the environmental concerns, cannot be singled out from the broader context of social and economic styles of development. This puts the issue of political economy of development at the top of the urban agenda.

Even in cities that play a pre-eminent role in the processes of globalization of the economy, economic progress often goes hand in hand with the persistence of pockets of destitution and ghettos. Hence the danger of paying too much attention to the economic role of cities, while underestimating the social, environmental, political, cultural, psychological and spatial dimensions of the ongoing transformations. The experience of several industrialized countries shows that provision of reasonable infrastructure and shelter is not sufficient to humanize the cities and to overcome the social tensions. Employment, social integration and effective grass-roots democracy are necessary to create a sense of belonging and co-responsibility - two ingredients of meaningful citizenship. Designing and implementing systemic public policies should not only aim at improving people's quality of life, but also bring social and political stability to our cities, and thereby to our societies.

Nor is it reasonable to expect that complex and, in many cases, unique challenges will be met by merely copying ready-made models, even though these models may have shown their efficiency under other latitudes and in different contexts. "Cities are like people. They belong to the urban species but they have their unique personality. The response to the urban challenge must take into account the singular configurations of natural, cultural, and socio-political factors, as well as of the historical past and tradition of each city. Instead of proposing across-the-board, homogenizing solutions, the diversity of cities should be considered as a cultural value of paramount importance" (Sachs, I., 1994, p.332).

The sheer magnitude of the urban explosion compounded by the backlog of unattended employment, housing, environmental, public health and educational needs - "the social debt" - means that the replication in the South of the solutions now existing in the North would only increase the prevailing inequality, benefiting a minority and marginalizing a majority of the urban dwellers. Given the scale and nature of urban change and its likely extent in the future, the conventional model for the development of urban residential areas within market or mixed economies, developed in the North, does not work in the vast majority of urban centers in the Third World, and proved its limits in the North. Hence the need to seek innovative approaches.

The speed with which urban populations have grown in Third World nations has far outpaced the institutional capacity to manage it. The central characteristic of the urban problem is not the scale of population growth but the scale of the mismatch between demographic change and institutional change (Arrossi et al., 1994).

Today, cities have emerged as strategic territories for a broad array of social, economic and political processes central to the current era: economic globalization, international migration, the emergence of the producer services and finance as the leading growth sector in advanced economies, the new poverty, among others, and as strategic sites for their theorization (Sassen, 1991 & 1994). This return of the city to the fore of the social sciences agenda can be seen as the representation of the social question in urban terms, the projection of the cleavage between marginalisation and integration (Dubet, 1994; Rosanvallon, 1995).

However, cities are not just territories where social transformations take place, they are actors of this process. Hence it is necessary to determine how cities can play the role of economic, social and cultural driving forces - becoming incubators of innovation - and adapt to our rapidly changing, interdependent and uncertain world, as an alternative to the crisis of the nation-states.

Cities are undergoing a profound metamorphosis, the full consequences of which are still to be completely fathomed. As Francis Godard puts it, "we may then ask ourselves the following question: does the crisis of previous urban development models simply reflect the inability of cities to cope with the new world situation, or are we now instead witnessing the dawn of a new urban civilization, based on new relationships between cities and labor, and between cities and regions?"

In this turbulent sea of change, the urban challenge constitutes perhaps the most difficult, yet crucial, component of the sustainable human development agenda, and calls for finding concrete ways of harmonizing the criteria of social equity, ecological sustainability, economic efficiency, cultural pluralism and integration, and balanced spatial distribution of human activities and settlements, otherwise countries doomed to become one after another urban archipelagos in rural deserts. Meeting these criteria means translating them into a plurality of local ecosystem-specific, culture-specific and even site-specific solutions, devising new resource-use patterns and management procedures, requiring new mindsets, attitudes and values.

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