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Urbanization in the developing world

A few days ago I asked a reader of this blog if there was anything, in particular, that she’d like to see more of on here. She responded by saying that she’d love to learn more about how other cities—outside of Toronto—are managing urbanization, as well as how we shape cities and cities shape us.

It’s an interesting and important question because, frankly, the challenges are greater outside of Toronto. One of the stats that often gets cited here in the media is how the Greater Toronto Area gets approximately 100,000 new immigrants every year. This doesn’t include domestic migration though, so I would assume that our total number is even greater.

But if we stick with 100,000 for now, it means the GTA receives about 11.4 new immigrants every hour (100,000 people / 8,765 hours in a year). Lagos, Nigeria, on the other hand, receives between 50-60 new people every hour. In fact, it’s predicted to be 7th fastest growing city in the world between now and 2020. 

If you take a look at the complete list of the world’s fastest growing cities (all estimates, of course), you’ll likely notice that the vast majority of the cities are in the developing world. And that’s really the challenge. The world is rapidly urbanizing and becoming the most urban it’s ever been, but the changes are the greatest outside of developed nations. This poses entirely unique challenges.

Of the kinds of cities I’m talking about, I’m most familiar with Dhaka, Bangladesh. In my last year at Penn, I was part of a studio led by KieranTimberlake Architects that focused on water and housing issues in that city. It was a partnership with the University of Dhaka. We spent roughly 2 weeks there and it was an eye opening experience.

Here’s a telling slide from our final presentation:

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What we were trying to do with this chart was compare population and per person land value for our development site according to various city types. In other words, we were essentially asking: If we were to build out our proposed site in the same way, as say, Dallas, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, or what is typical for Dhaka, how many people could we fit and what would be the resulting per person land value?

I don’t remember where we got the land value figures from, but we were trying to be cognizant of the fact that every city requires a unique solution. Using the same per person land values in Dhaka as in Dallas would be unimaginable because Dhaka has over 40,000 people per square kilometre (top right on the diagonal line above) and Dallas has under 1,400 per square kilometre (bottom left on the diagonal line above).

The challenges of urbanization in the developing world are profound, particularly in places like Dhaka where most of the city is subject to severe annual floods. By some estimates, 18% of the city’s land area gets flooded every year—talk about adding another layer of city building complexity.

We didn’t solve all of the problems in that studio and we’re not going to do it here, but I do think it’s important to fully understand the problem. One of my favorite books on cities is called “The Endless City.” It examines New York, Shanghai, London, Mexico City, Johannesburg and Berlin, and has a ton of great data and diagrams.

Here are a two that outline densities and land use patterns for the above 6 cities (same order starting on the top left):

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If you’re interested in cities, it’s definitely worth having it on your coffee table. And fitting to @PhatNancy’s tweet, ”The Endless City doesn’t just show how cities are changing but also how they are changing us.

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