As the world’s population grows and people flock to large cities in search of work to sustain their growing families, we are seeing rapid urbanization in many third world countries. Urbanization occurs when birth rates are high and mortality rates are low (Pugh 381). Because so many people are huddling together in dense, over-populated cities trying desperately to gather enough resources for themselves and their families, urbanized areas are suffering from overcrowding, malnutrition, unstable health care, and homelessness. Since the twentieth century, “the proportion of the world’s population living in urban areas has grown from 14% to over 50%” (Allender et al. 938). This trend is most prevalent in developing countries such as South Korea (Allender et al. 938), numerous countries in Africa (Pugh 391), Bangladesh and Nepal (Srinivasan, Zanello, & Shankar 12).
While rapid urbanization is a trend in modern societies around the world, not all over-urbanized cities are the same. The World Bank has a classification system for describing countries containing urbanized cities and breaks the degrees of urbanization into four categories (Drakakis-Smith 659). The first of these four categories is described as including “heavily urbanized countries (75 percent plus) growing mostly through natural increase and experiencing declining rates of growth” (Drakakis-Smith 659). The second category includes “more recently urbanized countries (currently around 50 percent), mostly the result of rural migration, where growth rates have peaked” (Drakakis-Smith 659). The third category includes “primarily rural but rapidly urbanizing countries experiencing growth throughout the urban hierarchy. Migration is currently the main cause of growth, but natural increase is also substantial” (Drakakis-Smith 659). The fourth and final category includes “large, heavily populated countries with substantial pressures on land. Growth rates, largely migrational, have stabilized but will remain high” (Drakakis-Smith 659). Each of these categories suffers from the pressures of too high of a population and not enough resources to go around, although the causes of urbanization vary, as do the rates of growth.
Rapid urbanization causes numerous problems for citizens, economics, government, and proper city planning. Problems such as issues with “infrastructure planning, uncontrolled urban sprawl, and a concentration of resources at the expense of the surrounding countryside” (Maktav, Erbek & Jurgens 655) are long-term issues that are difficult to undo or repair once they have begun. In the haste of accommodating the new rush of citizens moving into a specific area, homes and apartment buildings are constructed often with low-quality products and with rushed errors. Buildings are erected in areas that are readily available, but that might not be in the best interest of strategic and cohesive city planning.
Another issue of over-urbanization involves the effects on unemployment and poverty. With population growth at its current rate, there are more than 35 million job seekers added to the labor force every year (Pugh 381). This means that more people are seeking work and fair wages than there are jobs, which causes high competition for jobs and drives down the average wages. Unless industries can keep up with the number of people seeking work in the available labor force, "jobseekers will remain dependent on low-income and informal sector activities" (Pugh 381). When people are fighting over minimum wages, and there are people losing in this fight resulting in unemployment, we then have rampant poverty.
Possibly the most troubling consequence, “the rapid urbanization experienced in the developing world brings increased mortality from lifestyle diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease” (Allender et al. 938). In the ten years between 1990 and 2000, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases – meaning any diseases that are not bacterial, viral or fungal in nature and which cannot be transmitted from one person to another – rose from 47% to 56% in populations in developing countries (Allender et al. 939). Researchers predict that by 2020, non-communicable diseases will account for 69% of all deaths of individuals living in developing countries (Allender et al. 939). Due to over-urbanization, the people who will suffer most from non-communicable diseases will be relatively young, of low socioeconomic status, and suffer from a diminished quality of life due to the early onset of disease (Allender et al. 939).
With the threat of illness in over-urbanized areas, it is important to better understand the present situation so that changes can be implemented as effectively as possible. Health is a complex matter that involves more factors than previously realized. According to Trudy Harpham of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, "health research used to focus on individual characteristics (biological, demographic, psychological/personality and behavioral). There is increasing evidence that place, or community-level factors, have an independent effect on health" (Harpham 108). Every city is unique and comes with its own set of complications. In Bangkok, Thailand, nearly one-third of heart-disease related deaths are associated with air pollution due to high population density urban areas established amongst factories and industrial ventures (Harpham 113). Other factors that must be considered include, for example, the location of food outlets, availability of recreation facilities, services, social networks and crime (Harpham 108) - all of which are the very characteristics looked for in determining the quality of an urban society. It is no coincidence that the qualities of an urban society are also strong determinants for good or bad health for citizens.
Studies have also shown that a neighborhood's overall socioeconomic status (SES) influences residents' health even more so than a specific individual's personal socioeconomic status (Harpham 108). For example, "low neighborhood SES has negative effects on the likelihood of smoking, physical activity, depression, hostility, and mortality risk" (Harpham 108). A neighborhood can also set up bad habits for children that will affect the rest of their lives. In urban areas and low socioeconomic status neighborhoods, children have higher injury rates and more behavioral and emotional difficulties (Harpham 108). Researchers blame these trends on "residents' health behaviors, sense of inequality and position in the social hierarchy, psychological stress, higher crime, poor housing, lack of transportation, and greater exposure to environmental contaminants" (Harpham 108). Urbanization has such a powerful effect on the moods, attitudes and mental health of citizens, which results in a higher need for mental health services and morale-boosting activities within city limits. With a population of depressed, unhealthy citizens, it is impossible for a city to thrive or even function at an adequate level, resulting in a downward spiral that ripples through the generations.
The information clearly points towards the conclusion that over-urbanization has serious detrimental effects on human health, quality of life, unemployment, poverty, and poor city planning. With all the amassed information, governments have a difficult task of intervening in urbanization trends for the sake of their citizens and the country’s wellness. Governments need to begin by understanding the priorities of their citizens. For example, in Latin American urbanized cities, the top priorities in need of intervention are perinatal care, mental health services particularly for depression, issues of violence and medical care for heart disease (Harpham 113). In sub-Saharan Africa, the priorities are mostly medical and include issues such as HIV, AIDS, malaria, respiratory illness, and diarrhea (Harpham 113). In South Asian nations, urban citizens are in desperate need of perinatal health care and medical services pertaining to respiratory illnesses, heart disease and diarrhea (Harpham 113).
Urbanization is a very real and persistent trend plaguing countries all over the world today and the trend will continue. According to researchers, “over the next 30 years, virtually all of the world’s population growth is expected to be concentrated in urban areas in the developing world” (Cohen 63). The only way to counteract the devastation of over urbanization is with sustainable development. According to economists, “sustainable development refers to a form of lasting economic growth that meets the need of both present and future generations” (Bartone 411). Because urbanized areas are fixed in their ways of providing the bare minimum to as many people as possible, it will be extremely difficult to implement changes in urban areas and “the challenges of achieving sustainable urban development will be particularly formidable” (Cohen 63). However, we cannot resign ourselves to doing nothing and accepting the tragic depletion of resources as inevitable.
Instead, cities around the globe must act. While the road to sustainability will be difficult, it is the only way to ensure the survival of the growing population. Without sustainability, the globe will fall victim to increased malnutrition and starvation, overcrowding, and complete depletion of the earth’s natural resources. Sustainability has three main categories of objectives (Drakakis-Smith 663). The economic objectives of a sustainable society include growth, equity, and efficiency (Drakakis-Smith 663). Ecological objectives include ecosystem integrity, not surpassing the carrying capacity, biodiversity, and an awareness of global issues (Drakakis-Smith 663). The social objectives of a sustainable society include empowerment, participation, social mobility, social cohesion, a strong cultural identity and institutional development (Drakakis-Smith 663). The objectives of a sustainable society are much more considerate of survival needs than the objectives of an economically- or commercially focused society, which cares only about monetary growth and immediate gratification.
Implementing a model of urban sustainability includes a balanced focus on public safety, public health, and social equity (Xiang, Stuber & Meng 418). As urban societies stand now, the social classes are severely divided as the rich become richer and the poor fall prey to famine, homelessness, and violence. Therefore, initiating an equal-opportunity policy of sustainability is crucial in order to ensure that no group or class of individuals is privy to more resources than another. Sustainability demands that individuals have respect and compassion for one another and do not force the less privileged to the outer edges of society and into areas of poor quality of life.
Another demand for a sustainable society is incorporating respect and awareness for the environment. As people churn up nutrient-deprived soil in hopes of finding the last scrap of agriculture left, the impact of this industrialization ruins any possibility for using that land in the future. Instead, societies must implement practices of rotating agriculture in which some plots of land are used to grow plants and vegetables while the soil of other plots is allowed to rest for a period of at least two months, allowing the soil “to replenish its vital micronutrients, microbes, and other important components” (GRACE, 2014). Each season the plots of land that have rested are rotated into an active state while the plots of land that yielded crops are next allowed to rest. Without crop rotation and resting, the soil becomes sand-like and unable to sustain any form of growth whatsoever. By using crop rotation and resting, crops can continue to produce food products indefinitely (GRACE, 2014).
The problems of urbanization are extremely complex, involving issues of necessity for survival, desperation, and a lack of concern for the future due to the pressures of the present. However, it is important to first look at the quality of life to which such practices have led: famine, mistrust amongst citizens competing for resources, increased risk of non-communicable diseases, air and water pollution, overcrowding, depression, and anxiety. Next, we must realize that if urbanized societies continue this path, there will no longer be a future to hope for. Resources will vanish and disease and starvation will dwindle the population down to a skeleton of the societies we now know. So while current practices may seem like the only way to survive for the moment, cultures around the globe must weigh the current situation against the prospect of a sustainable society in which quality of life is increased and lifestyle practices ensure the survival of future generations, rather than destroy any hope for human survival.
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