Local Research for Better Lives

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The iconic Chain Bridge, Budapest, Hungary

"The 21st Century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city" ~ Foreign Policy (September 2010: p. 122)

 Already, we have crossed the halfway mark. In 2007, and for the first time in human history, more than 50 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 2030, various projections suggest that this will increase to almost 60 percent of total population, and to about 80 percent by 2050. Needless to say, with urban areas becoming the source of livelihoods for a majority of the population around the globe, a huge toll on resources is undertaken. Planning of urban areas, the provision of sizeable amounts of public goods, their impact on the environment, the tackling of speedily waves of migrants to the cities are issues that require an urgent scrutiny by scholars and policymakers all together. Many facets of Development become synonymous to Urbanization.

But what is really a ‘city’ and how can it be defined? To quote Alan Beattie in his book False Economy (2009), “A successful city is a hard thing to build, and a world-class one even harder. But incompetent or wrong-headed governments have stunted and even destroyed so many in the past that complacency and fatalism in the face of urbanization are profoundly misplaced”. Edward Glaeser, in his recent celebrated book The Triumph of the City (2011) argues that “At their heart, cities are the absence of physical space between people and firms; they enable connections and that makes them more productive”.

Professor Saskia Sassen, our Keynote Speaker is to present the 'state of the art' in this fascinating area by arguing that "Cities are complex systems. But they are incomplete systems. In this incompleteness lies the possibility of making –making the urban, the political, the civic, a history, an economy. To what extent do we need to see the complex city as a sort of new frontier zone for the circulation of development processes and for the making of new types of economies? In other words, can cities and their growing presence add something specific to the larger question of development? Can the city function as a sort of algorithm where information, knowledge, policies, experience, many coming from rural experiences, all flow in and then exit strengthened by redistributive and civic logics, both key features of cities?"

We believe that the most important societal changes in developing countries are currently happening in cities, and the most important things that are currently happening in urban development are currently happening in developing countries. Yet, in spite of a growing number of very good contributions from the 'South', we still have far too little economic research on developing world cities. Despite the fine work of a small cadre of pioneers in the economics of developing world cities, the overwhelming bulk of urban economics research has focused on the developed world in general and the United States in particular.

At the same time, the urbanization experience (and the policy challenges faced by policymakers) of the various regions in the developing world varies substantially. In South Asia, one of the central questions today is whether the urban model of East Asia can be replicated, i.e. cities investing not only in traditional infrastructure, but also in social infrastructure. Violence and conflict have also been associated in recent works with the engine of growth thesis regarding urbanization, a distinct feature of the urbanization process in many cities in Latin America. Furthermore, globalization has resulted in growing competition amongst cities in South Asia as compared to nation-states, i.e. Bombay and Bangalore are more relevant to business than India as a country. Finally, for Africa, although urbanization is a rather recent phenomenon, the prospect of Africa’s urban population doubling over the next two decades presents various challenges but also opportunities for the region.

Of course, urban concentration has historically enabled the flows of knowledge, the division of labor, the movement of goods and the combination of labor and capital that help transform poor places into rich ones. But at the same time, urbanization also creates enormous challenges and externalities, including contagious disease, congestion and crime that often seem like to be far beyond the capacities of many governments in the developing world. Urban poverty is also emerging as a central challenge in this important research and policy area. Is the urbanization process per se the one that produces unavoidable poverty traps or is it that the continuous migration to cities of very poor people for which states and municipalities fail to timely endow them with a minimum stock of public goods, the overwhelming dominant phenomenon for the stickiness and resilience of poverty enclaves? Obviously, reducing the costs of these externalities will improve the quality of life in poor cities and also enable those cities to expand and live up to their full economic potential.

Over the next few days, some of the world's best minds in the scholarly and policymaking arena will gather in the historic city of Budapest, in the context of the upcoming GDN Annual Global Development Conference, which will focus on the Urbanization and Development theme this year and in partnership with the Central European University, to debate and also improve our overall understanding on the urbanization and development nexus. More than 350 participants are expected to participate in the conference from all over the world, including representatives from the policymaking world, the international donor community, academia, practitioners in this area and, most importantly, a vast number of young researchers (GDN’s main focus in view of the centrality of the Organization’s mission in enhancing capacity building in the Global South).

We invite you to join us in these important deliberations, during (and after) the conference and share with us your views, suggestions, comments and ideas on how to do better in this crucial area for the improvement of millions of lives in the fast-growing cities of the developing world (and beyond). Because we can certainly do better on that front and because your voice, approach or contribution are of upmost importance to us.

NOTE: Read the detailed Conference Program

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