Every developing state stands to benefit from strategic urbanization—from, that is, strategically distributing urban areas throughout its territory, seeing them as interrelated components of a national development plan to increase growth, promote social change, and create a more inclusive economy and society. Establishing a geographically spread out mixture of large, medium, and small cities and smaller towns—and building a decent road network between these places—would permit more balanced growth and development that will not be overwhelmed by the waves of people moving from rural areas. Governments would be better able to serve a constellation of cities and towns than one chaotic megalopolis. Rural residents could more easily access the services that urban areas provide if those areas were closer to the countryside. Growth would spread out across a country more evenly, benefitting more people more equitably. Urban planning would be easier too.
The states likely to benefit the most from strategic urbanization are large middle-income countries with lots of poor people—most notably India, but also countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt, Nigeria, and even Bangladesh, which is approaching middle-income status. They have the human resources and administrative capacity to conduct large-scale planning, and enough resources (on paper at least) to build out the infrastructure. Moreover, great regional inequities and urban-rural divides call out for just such an approach. Smaller or poorer places that have the necessary administrative and financial resources—including Kenya and Ethiopia—should also be able to adopt it in some form. Even states with very meager governments would benefit from distributing their resources more equitably across major cities and regions.
Strategic urbanization would also contribute substantially to efforts to enhance a state’s implementation capacity and inclusiveness by strengthening the presence of government across the entire country and by helping to integrate more people into the country’s economic and social life.
It would improve the quality of government by bringing public services closer to where people are located and by increasing the chances that those services will be well delivered. Local elites generally feel greater pressure to perform competently and fairly than do distant bureaucrats, because the elites are directly affected by the lack of public services and the dissatisfaction it provokes. Less overcrowding also increases the ability of administrators to deliver results. Small and cohesive urban areas present many opportunities to create mechanisms (e.g., elections, oversight committees) that allow local peoples to hold their political leaders accountable.
Strategic urbanization could be combined with efforts at decentralization to launch a whole new urban-based model of development—in which a substantial portion of a state’s resources and responsibilities would be funneled to major cities and their surrounding hinterlands. Greatly empowered mayors—or district governors—would be tasked with larger portfolios than is the case today, handling most facets of government in their areas. Restructuring the state around where people lived would remove the difficulties of managing across great distances, produce leaders who focus on the pragmatic concerns of their constituents, and make it easier for citizens to hold their politicians accountable. It would also produce less divisiveness in politics, as local populations would likely be much more cohesive than national ones.
This is already happening in some of the countries that have empowered urban or local governments to act on their own. Local “development states” have even emerged in cities or regions when national governments are struggling. The city of Medellin in Columbia, for instance, has made significant economic and social progress since the late 1990s thanks to local activism that has proven both popular and effective. The poor have especially benefitted from new transport links, publicly funded business support centers, and a locally managed program of cash grants.
For more information, see:
Can Cities Build Local ‘Developmental States’? Some Surprising Good News from Colombia
By Duncan Green
China Urbanizes: Consequences, Strategies, and Policies
By Shahid Yusuf