In North America, other urban centers experienced a growth spurt during the Industrial Era. In 1800, the only city in the world with a population of over 1 million was Beijing, but by 1900, there were 16 cities with a population of over 1 million. The development of factories brought people from rural to urban areas, and new technology increased the efficiency of transportation, food production, and food preservation. For example, from the mid-1670s to the early 1900s, London increased its population from 550,000 to 7 million.

The growth in global urbanization in the 20th and 21st centuries follows the blueprint of North American cities. Still, it occurs much more quickly and at larger scales, especially in peripheral and semi-peripheral countries. Shanghai almost tripled its population from 7.8 million to 20.2 million between 1990 and 2011, adding the equivalent of the population of New York City in 20 years. It is projected to reach 28.4 million by 2025, third in size behind Tokyo (38.7 million) and New Delhi (32.9 million).

Urban Environmental Problems of the Developing World

Global urbanization reached the 50 percent mark in 2008, meaning that more than half of the global population lived in cities compared to only 30 percent 50 years ago. Access to basic services— clean water, sanitation, electricity, and roads—are some of the main urbanization challenges facing the developing world.

Municipal waste management is a crucial service cities provide, but it is often inefficient and underperforming in developing countries. Low-income countries face the most acute challenges with solid waste management. In low-income countries, cities collect less than half the waste stream. Of this, only about half is processed to minimum acceptable standards. Improper waste management, especially open dumping and open burning, significantly affects water bodies, air, and land resources. People who live near or work with solid waste have increased disease burdens. Unmanaged waste also frequently blocks drainage systems and worsens flooding. Even when collected and transported, waste in dumpsites and landfills contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Roughly 2.6 billion people in the developing world lack adequate sanitation, and facilities are often overloaded, disrepair, or unused. Even though the sanitation gap is twice as large as the water supply, investments in sanitation and hygiene have lagged far behind those in water and other “social” sectors, such as health and education. The main costs of urban sanitation services are sewers and sewage treatment. Whereas sewers contribute to public health by reducing everyday contact with sewage (especially by children), wastewater treatment is designed largely to meet ecological objectives and not public health ones. Urban utilities, by and large, are not well designed or staffed to address off-network solutions for water supply or sanitation, yet those solutions are likely to be the most important first steps of progress in environmental health for many of the urban poor.

Experience suggests that demand for car ownership increases dramatically at annual household incomes of $6,000–$8,000. If history repeats itself, an additional 2.3 billion cars will be added by 2050, mostly in developing countries, given expected economic growth and past patterns of motorization. For instance, in the six largest cities in India, the population doubled between 1981 and 2001, but the number of motor vehicles increased eight times over the same period. Between 2000 and 2013, car ownership in China increased more than six times. Similar trends are seen in other fast-growing economies. Increased income levels, cheaper personal vehicles, increased travel distances, and inadequate public transport systems have made the personal motorcar an increasingly attractive travel option. The associated health costs are high—in Beijing, the health costs from local air pollution are estimated at $3.5 billion annually. In Pakistan, more than 22,600 adult deaths were attributable to urban ambient air pollution in 2005. Air pollution causes more than 80,000 hospital admissions per year, nearly 8,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, and almost 5 million lower respiratory cases among children under five.

Slum cities refer to the development on the outskirts of cities of unplanned shantytowns or squats without access to clean water, sanitation, or other municipal services. These slums exist largely outside the rule of law and have become centers for child labor, prostitution, criminal activities, and struggles between gangs and paramilitary forces for control. Mike Davis (2006) estimates that there are 200,000 slum cities worldwide, including Karantina in Beirut, the Favéla in Rio de Janeiro, the “City of the Dead” in Cairo, and Santa Cruz Meyehualco in Mexico City. He notes that while slum residents constitute only 6 percent of the urban population in developed countries, they constitute 78.2 percent of city dwellers in semi-peripheral countries. In Davis’s analysis, neoliberal restructuring and the Structural Adjustment Programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are largely responsible for creating the informal economy and withdrawing the state from urban planning and providing services. As a result, slum cities have become the blueprint for urban development in the developing world.


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Introduction to Environmental Sciences and Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Emily P. Harris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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