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Dealing with Urbanization: One size doesn’t fit all.

Cindy Fan

Interview on the challenges of urban development with Professor Cindy Fan, Vice Provost for International Studies and Global Engagement at the University of California Los Angeles, and a featured speaker at the GES.

GES: What are the three major challenges you see in managing urban development? The three major opportunities?

Challenges, as I see them include:

  • Overloaded infrastructure in large cities especially in the global South where migrants flow to urban areas continuously without necessarily access to jobs and reasonable housing.
  • Rapid changes in mode of transportation to automobiles, which combined with rapid increase in urban population escalate green-house gas emissions and exacerbate air pollution.
  • Rise in inequality in urban areas, mirrored by spatial segregation of cities into pockets of extreme wealth and pockets of extreme poverty.
GES: And the opportunities?

Yes, I see them as:

  • Diverse population in cities offers opportunities to promote multicultural understanding and interactions.
  • Large urban population fosters cross-fertilization of ideas, collaboration, and innovation.
  • Agglomeration of activities produces economies of scale and increases efficiency.
GES: How can municipal governments plan better to accommodate the influx of citizens moving to cities?
Fan: Good urban planning is the key. A good public transportation system – e.g., trains, subway – allows the city to expand outward and accommodate a growing population due to in-migration. A variety of housing types at different prices is also helpful to accommodate migrants who otherwise may resort to living in slums or slum-like environments.
GES: As demands for global food production increase, do you see a potential reversal of current urbanization trends – people moving back to rural areas to take advantage of greater opportunities in agriculture? If not, why not?
Fan: It’s difficult to expect that agriculture as a source of livelihood will attract a large number of reversed migrants. Extensive, machinery-driven, and commercialized agriculture is much more profitable than household farming, but the former affects only a small number of people. A more likely scenario for reversed migration is when migrants return to the countryside for retirement because the cost of living there is lower than that in the city.
GES: Urbanization obviously creates pressures beyond infrastructure capacity. There are challenges in cultural, racial, and religious integration, deepening financial inequality, and a mindset to deal with the very young and very old that may not be completely compatible with urban living. How do we prioritize these challenges and what specifically do political, business, religious, and community leaders need to do to manage them?
Fan: By definition, urbanization brings people from all backgrounds together in one place. Diversity is both a challenge and an opportunity. If diverse segments of the urban population are segregated and remain segregated, then misunderstanding or lack of understanding tends to perpetuate and may breed conflicts. On the other hand, if political, business, religious and community leaders embrace differences and set a positive tone about diversity – that diversity is good for us, it’s valuable and produces tangible and positive outcomes – then urbanization actually provides an environment for inter-cultural and multi-cultural interactions.
GES: Rural cultures and traditions are the bedrock of many nations. Will those disappear with increasing urbanization?
Fan: What is often missing in urban areas is a sense of community in a geographically manageable setting. Neighbors in cities don’t see or talk to each other. However, a concerted effort to cultivate a sense of community even in the largest cities may bear fruit if local leaders commit to it. In U.S. cities, Neighborhood Watch is effective not only in keeping residential areas safe but also in building a sense of collective goodwill among neighbors. In some cases, powerful neighborhood communities have kept developers at bay.
GES: How do events such as the Global Economic Symposium help planners and policy makers prepare for the future, especially in complex issues like urban development?
Fan: Urbanization is one of the most compelling issues of the 21st century. Every imaginable concern of contemporary human society is related to urbanization – environment, inequality, poverty, education, race, migration, politics, health, crime, terrorism, …, you name it. Events such as the Global Economic Symposium bring together experts of high caliber in the above areas and beyond, who offer up-to-date information, insights on the complexity of urbanization, as well as policy recommendations for practitioners who deal with the day-to-day challenges of urban development.
GES: Is there anything you would like to add that we have not asked?
Fan: I am sure there are many dimensions of urbanization that are worth mentioning. I would just add that urban development in the global North is quite different from that in the global South. One size doesn’t fit all. In that light, any solutions offered to address challenges of urbanization must be sensitive to the political, historical, economic, social, and cultural context of the place at question.