By James Cody Birkey
Most human geographers predict an unprecedented pace of urbanization to occur over the next half-century. This is a result of a broad set of convergent factors, one of which is the migration of poor rural populations to urban areas. This rapid growth has placed particular demands on cities, especially in the developing world. Very often, cities and governments either ignore these communities, or see them as a problem. It is hard to say which is worse.
As response to the development of slums, many national and local strategies try to “deincentivize” their growth. The assumption is that by intentionally disenfranchising these areas by limiting access to urban services, rural-urban migration might be kept at bay.
Billy Cobbett, head of Cities Alliance at the World Bank, explained recently at Harvard not only how pervasive this stance is in the developing world, but how unbeneficial it is. He argued for the inevitability of the trend of urbanization, and that it ought to be harnessed rather than distained. Assuming he is right, what kinds of tools might governments and the private sector have to approach this phenomenon constructively?
To pair this notion of a city that “anticipates” the inevitable influx of population with some of the financial efficaciousness of transit systems like the BRT might open up some very interesting possibilities. Transit has the power to drastically shape economic geographies of cities precisely because cost (in time and money) of commuting overwhelmingly shapes land values. Therefore, in cities struggling to dictate urban form in the face of growth of unserviced slums, could a BRT-linked land development strategy positively incent growth in currently undeveloped areas best for the city as a whole?
In the United States during the early 1900’s, large-scale landowners struck deals to bring trolleys out to lands they owned on the edge of the city. In a time when most people commuted on foot, a transit offering drastically changed the value and urban relevance of a parcel of land, and these new “suburbs” developed rapidly. Using the same principal, is it possible to coordinate with local entities to stretch BRT—which is much less expensive than trolleys or subway—ahead of time out into areas the city ought to grow? Is it possible to do this in a coordinated fashion, such that financial opportunities exist for private enterprise to engage cohesively or even take the lead? Perhaps governments could agree to build systems like this in trade for certain percentages of inclusionary housing, or other strategies that might engage the poor.
Doubtlessly, dealing with urban growth, especially regarding economically-constrained populations, is multi-faceted and will require a broad set of tools. However, this idea—particularly with transportation—to move ahead of growth rather than simply to respond to it, might open up doors to much better-planned transit systems in the long term, as well as unlocking newly valuable land at a price that can be attainable for the populations that will inevitably move in.