UGEC Synthesis Session #1: 
Interdisciplinary understandings of urbanization and GEC: Regional patterns, processes and transitions


Session Abstract

This session aimed to synthesize our knowledge on the observed and projected trends in urbanization processes, their components and drivers (production and consumption, land use, form and function, population dynamics, technology, values, and policies), variations and extremes, and interactions globally and locally as well as critically reflect on our progress with respect to interdisciplinary research. It will identify common drivers and feedbacks and identification of distinctive regional patterns and transitions within the context of global socioeconomic, geopolitical and environmental changes.

Organizers: UGEC Project


Guiding questions

How do global and regional economic, financial, social, and environmental changes taking place so far impact urbanization pathways in developed and developing countries and what are their consequences and scale?

What are the underlying processes of urbanization that impact other Earth System processes? 

Can we identify regional differences in these processes and their consequences?

What lessons have we learned, for example, from the developed and developing countries to influence more positively the global urbanization processes and reduce their environmental impact?

Are these lessons coherent with local sustainable urbanization that is socially inclusive?  


Economic processes shaping urbanization

  •  Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has played a role in many developing nations, not only in Latin America, but also to some extent in Africa and is shaping urbanization and migration flows; across all regions these process of urbanization and changing dynamics are enmeshed in different ways and to different extents, not just in terms of domestic financial capital, mobilization and political processes, but global and regional as well.

  • In developing countries since the 1990s a shift has occurred in urbanization processes (particularly migration patterns) as a result of economic and financial drivers linked to globalization and associated economic liberalization policies; i.e., the pull factors of cities are stronger due to the greater economic opportunity vs. the previously more prominent push factors from rural areas.

  • Economic globalization enhances the role of place based competition, as capital investments which are often made in cities means growing competition between cities or metro regions, further driving inequality between places or regions

  • In the Southeast Asian region, as countries open up their economies there will be increased competition in urban spaces between developed and LDC countries, e.g., Singapore with Laos or Cambodia

    •  In Indonesia, large cities are on the megacity trajectory, but often become paralyzed by private agency control; medium-sized cities have a late-comer advantage, as they are often more open to sustainability pathways and are more flexible; however, small cities are left out from development, as people often leave as overseas migrants and remittances are invested in medium-sized cities into property, etc.  

    • Using the Indonesian city example (as similar elsewhere), diversified economies and industrialization have become uncontrollable, producing rapidly growing cities and conurbations, so fast-paced that responding is difficult.

  • In China, GDP pushes urbanization, however, there is no element of co-design or co-delivery to capture the co-benefits beyond the GDP link.

    • Economics is heavily linked to urbanization due to land, it’s value, but also fiscal policies and the governance structure; local authorities do not have revenue or the capacity to raise revenue, hence, land is the one way they can finance urbanization, to meet the GDP target.

    • Substantial money is being put into the funding of urbanization projects through national funding as well as local government’s’ sale of land for road building, etc., however, there is no research addressing the impacts on local people or equality issues.

    • China and other transition economies present opportunities for rethinking market-based liberal democracies where individual freedoms cannot be constrained (e.g., failure of carbon taxes in Australia).

  • Most of sub-Saharan Africa’s urbanization is related to global economic changes, wherein the heartbeat of the economy is influenced by global pricing, due to many nations’ dependence on trade and primary products (i.e., when they do not perform well on the global market, rural areas suffer and people flock to urban areas - push factor - creating a situation of poverty transfer from rural to urban).

  • Economic theory that underpins capitalist societies is fundamentally flawed (known for decades, but persists nonetheless) and the role of the bank, particularly private banks from which the large majority of money comes from (rather than the Central bank) is not widely acknowledged, nor connected to and researched in the context of the environment and urban transformation.

The role of the Informal economy

  • In Lagos, Nigeria (and elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa), the goal of urbanization at the national level – to create jobs and economic opportunity - has negatively impacted the informal communities, increasing poverty and furthering inequality.

  • Informality in the Global South could be an opportunity to experiment with innovative systems, e.g., small scale systems  that are distributed and networked, which are easier to manage over large scale systems.


Land as a driving factor and consequence of the urbanization process

Rural/Urban tension

  • In many countries undergoing an urban transition, fragmentation in terms of urbanity and rurality exists.

    • In India, the rural and urban is so divided (from the national to the district level to the sub-district level), and given that the future and cities themselves depend on rural activities or rural migration, they must be addressed together.

    •  Agricultural land in developing countries is stressed and strained as the urban transition occurs; it is often unclear if such peri-urban lands ‘belong’ to the rural area or city, but in reality it is neither and will be challenging for projecting urban growth and classification, (e.g., there is no hybrid which is recognized by the UN).

Land ownership and real estate markets

  • Land itself and land ownership has huge implications for ecosystem services and the rural-urban relationship.

  • Fuel prices impact the urban land market which is dominated by effects of the mortgage/real estate market; i.e, how cheap it is to build is an important factor as well as the trade off effects of the real estate market, such as the desire to increase built-up land to provide shelter versus the use of land for public transportation.

  • In Port Vila, Vanuatu there is a tension between the years of colonialism with more customary lines of land tenure, e.g., planned government-owned area and customary-owned sections.

  • In Zambia and other Sub-Saharan countries, most of the land-use in cities is informal, owned by traditional persons, which is linked to the development of slums and impacts the environment of these cities.

  • Sub-Saharan Africa is unique in that most of cities in the region do not have a clear rural-urban distinction (e.g., farming and off-farming movement in between cities) – urban farming there is very important and has implications for ecosystem services.

  • In Africa there is a trend of new cities deliberately being created for the same purpose of creating real estate (e.g., Port Harcourt in Lagos, and locations in Southern Africa and Kenya).


Actors and governance: the influence of systems, agents and institutions on the urban system

  • Multiple actors and their interactions (e.g., foreign investors working with local developers and elite) substantially impact the direction of city growth.

  • Developers will continue to act if the academic community does not.

  •  In many cities, governments are becoming weaker due to pressures of land and property, e.g., financial investors are giving direction to the cities and the cities, in turn, cater to their needs, without a focus necessarily on the most in need.

  • In Southeast Asia and other transitional economies, three actors can be identified: global corporations (economic and environmental power), an emerging middle class (purchasing power fueling economic growth with both positive and negative impacts) and the increasing role of local governments (through rising land and property markets).

    •  In sub-Saharan Africa the rise of middle class and the upper classes are the focus of government in many cases, not for poor.

  • There has been a dramatic rise of cities on the international agenda for climate change over the last two decades that has resulted in new networked forms of governance including transnational municipal networks and peer to peer learning.

    • South-South collaborations and the impact of these networks are undervalued.

  • In order to set up ‘our’ urban agenda an assessment of actors and their respective agendas must be made in order to see what room there is for the incorporation of different agenda.

Power and political influence in the city  

  • In general, across regions there remains a lack of political and administrative will and spirit with respect to issues like urbanization and adaptation, and the establishment of related services.

  • Political processes, e.g., political actors, decisionmakers and land markets (public and private power relations) are integral to the urban planning process, but are often ignored by research.

  •  In India, but in many other countries, there remains a huge disconnect between research and what happening on the ground due to the influence of power structures and often corruption.

  • Engaging local communities from the beginning in the process is crucial, but also is an opportunity to decentralize sanitation and other services, etc.  without inertia from large infrastructure networks

Urban planning and decision-making

  • In China ecological planning has been incorporated into centralized planning, with cities able to move ahead or beyond national baseline requirements prescribed by national policy. 

  • Velocity of change and the issue of ‘time’ is critical as planning instruments are not keeping pace with processes of urbanization, e.g., Chinese demand for copper is affecting cities within Chile where private wealth is accruing, but not necessarily increasing public wealth (services).

  • In many cases plans are prepared by planning consultants who do not know the local situation and cannot capture the emergent issues.

  •  Planning is still inadequate with respect to integrating sectors and systems (ecosystems, built infrastructure).

  • Policy planners (development workers) see the cities as the economic hub – but the residents see it as a place that needs to be ‘livable’.

  • Instruments of urban planning (e.g., integrated urban planning) remain an issue to be explored across regions for the future urban agenda (complex science could make this science-policy communication difficult).


Equity, social and environmental justice for livable cities

  • Despite an incomplete understanding of what we want for an urban future, there are shared guiding principles (e.g., justice, livelihoods, health) that provide a compass.

  • Vulnerable sectors of society, particularly in developing nations are neglected in the plans and at the mercy of the planners or the political leader, which highlights the issue of understanding actors and bridging the information gap.

  • Building capacity and engaging with the locals in the focal cities or communities of research should be a greater focus of academics.

  • Consultants are often brought in to create plans for cities, but there remains a big disconnect between these plans and on-the-ground realities, which highlights the need to be realistic about local capacities, particularly small cities (i.e., institutional realties vs. agents themselves).

  •  In Lagos, plans for urbanization and economic policies that are geared toward job creation are, in fact, driving a further wedge between the few small, very wealthy groups and the poor majority, impacting most heavily the informal communities.

  •  In China, migrant workers are moving to cities, comprising a workforce that is low-wage and without access and the cost of services is less, however, this leads to inequality and poses questions for the economic structure in terms of the welfare state, services and access to those services.

Smart cities and technology  

  • The exportation of ‘best practices’ and experiences of the Global North to the Global South cannot simply be the solution.

    • There are various conceptualizations of cities currently that do not address fundamental issues, such as social equity and power issues.

    • Eco-city mega projects often include academics researching abroad in locations. but do we understand well enough the local contexts for these to be just?


  • The impacts of urbanization on health, a cross-cutting issue, particularly the disease burdened, is a link that is understudied, as many cities and the burden of non-communicable diseases (e.g., asthma due to air pollution) has a huge impact on economic development.

  • Health inequities are a result of increasing health risk through social and environmental changes (e.g., lifestyle changes and pollution )related to urbanization and lack of capacity to provide services that would improve health care for urban residents, particularly in developing countries


Urbanization patterns, its pace and scale (teleconnections)

  • Can we truly understand the drivers and processes of urbanization as a system of cities operating at the global scale?

  • Do we know enough about the process or processes in various regions that we can imagine future urban sustainability and are we in a position to imagine potential future urban systems to the extent that we will know how it will interact with other systems, e.g., the food system and ecosystem services?

  • Underlying processes of urbanization are:

    • LULCC conversion;

    • consumption and increased consumption;

    • shifting sectoral patterns to secondary or tertiary employment;

    •  more concentrated flows of goods and services of energy and information to smaller more concentrated places on the Earth’s surface and to increasingly more distant places; and,

    • changing governance structures.  

  • There are also countervailing processes to the forces toward urbanization mediated by land prices and property markets, political interventions, changes in environment, climate or broader GEC processes etc.; e.g., Tokyo (dramatic urban pull), Northern England (cities growing faster than the economic hub of London) and Switzerland’s declining mountain populations (important for identity, culture and national defense), as the youth leave and older citizens need more care on a decreasing economic base.

  • Some cities in developing countries are becoming better connected with global cities (Bangalore with LA or San Francisco) because of economic factors or information technology, often bypassing hinterlands within the respective country.

  • It is the secondary/intermediate cities that have huge implications for various other socio-environmental processes.  

  • Given how fast urbanization is occurring in many regions, the implications on lifestyles and changing lifestyles is important.
  • Economic development, urban planning and population density of the overall country, which influences city population density, all impact energy use of urbanization and urban structure; the long term (decadal) impact of fuel prices affects urban structure and form, i.e., current fuel prices in different regions will impact urban structure in 30 years.
  • Medium densities of 50 -100 persons per hectare and inclusive transportation have local to global co-benefits whereas high densities suffer from the exclusion due to high land rents and also air pollution.
  • Small-scale city systems (plans and processes) occurring within the city can be expanded and  endemic in urban processes, which is, in fact, what urbanization is - individuals working in a collective fashion.

Technology choice

  • Technology choice is an urban development pathway and is both driven by and impacts environmental, economic and social considerations (e.g. AC use); technology always has both positive and negative (unwanted) effects, which need further consideration. 

  • Technology in the public sphere (via infrastructure) is an operational component of the urbanization process, e.g., engineers are designing the infrastructure based on societal norms and expectations, with legacies of changing cultural and regulative aspects.


Role of science, further needs and recommendations for the future urban agenda

  • Most cities in the world still are not researched, meaning no understanding of the differences or commonalities, which might exist among them.

  • More research is needed on the impacts of climate change and urbanization for rapidly growing countries in Asia.

  • Focus on the positive stories on adapting to future hazards and reducing vulnerabilities – over the last few years seems to be a greater focus on urbanization driving risk, versus as an opportunity of reducing risk (DRR).

  • A focus on local application that includes finding out the problem and offering alternative options to enhance resilience, which requires both non-structural and structural measures, vs. structural measures only.

  • Although there are many challenges for the future, what we do know is the amount of urbanization in the future and we have tools that can help to analyze, visualize and conceptualize to understand what these futures might look like in terms of spatiality, density, water and energy flows.

  • Researchers need to admit their failures and learn from them.

Knowledge production and transfer

  • Good practices are not going to come from just the Global North, rather there is evidence of successful South-South and South-North transfers.

  • International knowledge transfers must be better researched (Europe to China or other way to around) to understand the local and regional differences in how the knowledge manifests.

  • Co-production of knowledge - many actors (end-users) are not involved in the research design, especially those without voice (e.g., poor and marginalized groups), who need a lot of attention and time to establish trust.

  • There remains a disconnect between what people need or want or are interested in or care about versus what the academic community is producing – this might require a rethinking of  the kind of research done if it aimed at participatory processes.

  • Knowledge production has a spatiality, cities are centers of innovation and higher education where the accumulation of knowledge is correlated to economic processes in cities.

  • Urban simulations need to be made more accessible to people in general.

 A different science agenda

  • Reframing the interventions from a control and management perspective towards an agenda that is about being flexible and building self-reliance.

  • We do not need to understand the whole system before acting, but we can detect the leads at the early stage and help influence the process where possible; i.e., a change of mindset that includes an obsession with data.

  • Developing capacities and abilities to deal with uncertainty is important for countries within, for example, L. America and Africa.

  • Before moving towards totally new frameworks, it is worth revisiting those which we have and have not been successful with (e.g., ecological economics and its pricing for ecosystem services or externalities).

  • Science is needed that follows the continuum (fluidity and movement beyond boundaries); the humanities are far better equipped to deal with this and theory development.

  • A science is needed that is decisively political and can engage with the political dimension.

  • Opening up of science boundaries that asks 'what is the type of science that we need,' in order to find the answers, e.g., reconsidering positivist science towards more critical social theory that allows a reimagining of our collective future development and reframing of the way policies are conceptualized.

  • GEC frames research on the social-economic and environmental, but other kinds of questions addressed in the social sciences are ignored such as structure, agency and institutions.  Very little discussion in the last ten years has addressed how States have responded on raising taxation or incentivizing different technology or land use changes. If in the future, this community critically looks at austerity, economic change and the environment, then it would be worth widening up the conversation to other scholars who more closely look at financial flows to address the connection with urbanization processes.  


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