All third world areas are urbanizing that by the middle of the 1990s, the rural population in Latin American region as a whole will decline in absolute numbers. The spatial redistribution of population of such magnitude in almost all third world nations, for which there is no historical precedent, obliges us to ask ourselves whether the causes of these processes are only the result of an extended economic crisis, or whether we are immersed in a deeper ethical crisis, that of our entire civilization.
Trapped between a past which is unacceptable for a majority of the population and a future full of uncertainties, third world nations are undergoing a crisis of collective and sectorial leadership. The world as a whole has a chronic incapability to share comfort, power, time, resources and knowledge with those who need these things more. We are blindly passing to the future generation’s urban environments which are rapidly deteriorating and cities so populous that the options of the future generations will be severely circumscribed.
All third world nations are becoming increasable urban and the city sprawl now encroaches on ecosystems, which were sparely settled only one or two generations ago. Cities founded hundreds of years ago, are suddenly expanding so rapidly that the equivalent of a new city is built every 15 or even less years on their periphery or over the old districts. A comparatively new city, such as Goiania, planned in the 1930s, has now close to two million inhabitants, and Brasilia, inaugurated in 1960 as brazil’s national capital, has already nearly 2.5 million citizens. Places that were small villages a century ago, like Lagos and Casablanca, now have around five and three million respectively, and belo horinzonte, founded in 1890s, has now close to four million. The population of seoul has jumped from 3.8 in 1966 to over 11 million in 1990.
The problems created by these changes are so staggering and their scale is so vast that they have outdated all approaches to planned urban growth even before they could put into effect. Planning methods, the technologies adopted the search for basic data, the role of institutions, the scope of legislation, the training of personnel in public institutions and even selection of research themes, all have to be considered again and again to deal with challenges for which there are no precedents.
Practically all third world cities are being built with such scanty investment that no one can be surprised to see huge numbers of poor families and a growing pool of unemployed. We cannot prevent the growth of cities in any significant way, but we can improve their qualitative aspects if we learn to manages better the misused and unused resources that every nation and every city has: public lands in urban and suburban areas, with many centrally located but empty plots and unoccupied buildings; large numbers of unskilled or poorly trained and motivational employees and technical working for local and national governments; environmental legislation that is sanctioned but seldom enforced; and above all, the community bodies and nongovernmental organizations that operate in every city of a certain size. Governments can initiate projects and programmes by using these resources, which only await political decisions in order to be harnessed to the construction and management of cities. Governments must accept the idea that cities can only be built with the resources that national and local group provides
While governments have less and less influence in these processes and seem to be paralyzed by their magnitude, the readjustment policies introduced in many countries to stop inflation have considerably reduced the public expenditure and subsidies for social services and food. Besides the urban poor in the third world who have no organizations to claim their rights have benefited little or not at all from the actions of governments and international agencies and given their extreme situation, they feel vulnerable and fear retaliation and even repression.
The incomes of such groups are unlikely to increase to a level, where they will be able to satisfy their own housing and basic needs within the private sector. It is also doubtful that in the next 10 or 20 years the city will become sp prosperous as to have an impact on their incomes. Lots of urban populations are living in habitats, which constitute a threat to their lives.
Only a redistribution of wealth, worldwide and nationwide, could transform these cities. But third world nations cannot remain idle waiting either for these changes or for a slowdown in population growth. Educating the rich rand the powerful about their responsibilities towards less fortunate members of mankind is perhaps one of the soundest investments I can think of, if the purpose is to seek a world of equity, justice and peace.
Every society at a given historical moment must have the courage to innovate, move forward and even overthrow traditional precedents. Quite the worst effect of present policies is the support given to the elitist urban minority who in many counties deprive the rest of the population of their rights as citizens of democratic nations. Perhaps the first step should be to change the attitude of governments and from the business, labour and academic communities showing that they are concerned about their cities and about the urban poor could be a beginning. But it would have to be followed right away by government granting to local authorities and community bodies the resources and the political power which at present are almost systematically denied to them.
The following suggestions could help to alleviate the situation in the cities of the future;
Since there can be no reversing of present urbanization trends, the governments, big businesses, the churches, labour groups, the international community and nongovernmental organizations must prepare new approaches to bring food, health and minimum incomes to a vast number of people, especially the children, to households headed by women, to the crippled and the elderly, those who are most vulnerable groups.
Poverty and lack of planning are now shaping future cities, but until such time as the causes of poverty and its worst effects are overcome, we can introduce some broad physical guidelines and economic and social strategies in order to guide urban growth and future land uses.
Big projects are needed to improve and expand the infrastructure, but they are not the solution; a multiplicity of well selected and coordinated small scale projects, with the participation of the communities, could represent a step forward and would certainly be a better alternative to practices that have hitherto failed.