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Special Report: Seeking a New World : Case Study / Urbanization : The Rush to the Cities Is Straining the Social Fabric of Nations

December 18, 1990

PHOENIX SETTLEMENT, South Africa — Ninety years ago, when Mohandas K. Gandhi established Phoenix Settlement on this fertile knoll, it was a rural commune sheltering a dozen families. Dedicated "to serve mankind," it grew its own crops, operated a clinic and published a newspaper preaching nonviolent resistance to discrimination.

The legacy of Gandhi's 21 years of exile in South Africa lives on at the clinic. But what happened to the rest of Phoenix Settlement reflects the "urban revolution" now sweeping at least 120 of the world's 170 countries.

Today, more than 10,000 squatters are crammed around the shells of now-abandoned buildings from Gandhi's era. They have come from rural and tribal homelands, in search of better jobs, better homes--better just about anything.

Instead, they end up in homemade shacks of cardboard and plastic sheeting. Crates marked "Toyota spare parts" are favored building materials; their thickness better protects barefoot children from rain and biting winter winds.

Phoenix Settlement squatters are but a tiny fraction of the mass of humanity rolling into cities around the globe. In 1800, only 3% of the world's population lived in cities. In 1900, it was 10%. By the beginning of the 21st Century--for the first time in history--at least half the people of the world will be urbanized.

The impact of that transformation, which is occurring at its most uncontrolled in Third World countries least able to handle it, is staggering--on the people pouring into cities, on the cities themselves and on the nations of a world grown so interconnected that few will escape the shock waves from one of the greatest migrations in human experience.

For the Third World, "this situation is going to produce a social disaster, increasing the level of illiteracy, downgrading public health, converting cities to slums and creating a social structure with a deep cleavage and a large percentage of marginalized people," warned Atilio Boron, an Argentine political economist.

Chief among the consequences of runaway urbanization:

* The economic and political fabric of countries is strained perhaps to the breaking point as national treasuries are drained without meeting even the minimal needs of urban migrants. Food production drops in rural areas and existing institutions collapse under the strain of unsupportable burdens.

* As the public and private sectors fail to cope with millions of new residents, so-called "informal" institutions mushroom to deal with everything from jobs and housing to commerce and social services-- de facto states-within-states, all outside the control of government.

* The rise of impoverished megacities, urban centers besieged by rings of teeming slums, sets the stage for explosive urban strife as the burgeoning fringe vies for limited resources.

"Urbanization usually means housing problems, job problems, overcrowding, disease, social conflict," said Dr. Simon Baynham of Pretoria's Africa Institute. "As more and more impoverished people come in from the rural areas, they come into areas that are already limited in terms of the amount of land available.

"So you've got fighting over land, fighting over housing, over influence in these areas."

The developed world is not exempt. The populations of Los Angeles, New York, London and Moscow are all expected to top 10 million by the year 2000, while Tokyo-Yokohama will exceed 20 million. Advanced nations have far more resources available for dealing with such growth than poorer nations, however.

Some countries are already facing nightmares--intensified, ironically, by political and economic reforms. New freedoms stimulate urban migration even as they reduce governments' control over patterns of growth.

In Turkey in 1983, for example, the end of military rule and the accompanying economic reforms triggered a rush to the cities--and the rise of hundreds of gecekondus , or built-by-night suburbs. The fastest-growing area in Turkey is Sultanbeyli, a gecekondu outside Istanbul. In 1985, it was home to 3,741; today the population is 180,000.

In China, which has the world's largest rural population and limits migration, new urbanization fervor has broken out since the end of forced programs that had sent millions of city dwellers into the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. By the end of this decade, up to 200 million Chinese--equivalent to two-thirds of the U.S. population--are expected to move to cities, 46 of which already have more than a million inhabitants.

In South Africa, the repeal of apartheid laws limiting black migration from rural areas is spawning an influx so massive that Johannesburg's Urban Foundation predicts all of that country's major cities will double in population in just the next 10 years. With as many as 7 million urban squatters, South African cities would have to construct 800 homes a day for the next 10 years just to resolve the housing crisis.

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