At almost every other corner in this sprawling city, there’s some banging and clanging as construction of new buildings takes place.
The pace of urban growth in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, is breath-taking.
Mary Poynter, a U.S. citizen who has been visiting this Northern Thai city for the past 30 years says the city has undergone a transfiguration since she first visited.
“I have been visiting this city for the past 30 years and today it’s not in any way near what it was then,” she said in an interview.
Karunee Wathinnee, a life-time resident of Chiang Mai, confirmed that there had been a lot of changes in the city, accompanied by an incursion of people from foreign countries.
“This city has changed a lot with new buildings coming up everyday, and there are also a lot of foreigners that are living in this city now. Many buildings are coming up, very tall buildings,” she said.
What is happening in this city is not happenstance; it mirrors what is happening in many cities across Asia and Africa, where there’s a growth explosion influenced by economic and development booms as many countries adopt new economic models.
Around the world, especially in developing countries, towns and cities are growing at a break-neck pace, with both negative and positive consequences for humanity.
Economic growth breeds urbanization and urban centers provide people with an escape route from poverty but, ironically, also serve as incubators of poverty for others.
According to a United Nation Population Fund report (UNPFA), between 2000 and 2030, Asia’s urban population is expected to increase from 1.36 billion to 2.64 billion, Africa’s from 294 million to 742 million, and that of Latin America and the Caribbean from 394 million to 609 million.
This is enormous growth. If governments do not adopt appropriate policies, it spells disaster for the future with cities becoming havens of human strife, disease and insecurity.
“In 2008, the world reaches an invisible but momentous milestone: for the first time in history, more than half its human population, 3.3 billion people, will be living in urban areas,” says the report titled “State of World Population 2007: Unleashing the Potential of Urban Growth.”
“By 2030, this is expected to swell to almost 5 billion. Many of the new urbanites will be poor. Their future, the future of cities in developing countries, the future of humanity itself, all depend very much on decisions made now in preparation for this growth.”
But, surprisingly, 60 percent of the growth will be driven not by rural to urban migration but by higher rates in natural increase.
The report notes that a combination of the re-designation of formerly “rural areas” and residents as “urban” plus migration will account for 40 percent of the urban growth.
Increased crime, unorganized urban planning, slum dwellings, disease, poverty and environmental damage, among other issues, urbanization will put severe challenges on the plates of policymakers.
“The unprecedented urban growth taking place in developing countries reflects the hopes and aspirations of millions of new urbanites,” notes the report. “Cities have enormous potential for improving people’s lives, but inadequate urban management, often based on inaccurate perceptions and information can turn opportunity into disaster.”
Many of the people that will find themselves in urban centers will be the poor and voiceless. Migrants, for example, significantly expand urban populations and provide cheap labor but usually fall through the cracks, eventually becoming a security threat.
Women and children, key to the projected urban growth, remain largely out of the reach of key services, including health and education.
In many cities of the world, slums continue to crop up, and are significant havens of disease, crime and poverty.
“The poor settle in the worst living space, on steep hillsides or river banks that will be flooded, where nobody else wants to live and speculators haven’t taken control of the land,” the New York Times quoted George Martine, author of the report. “They have no water and sanitation and the housing is terrible. And this situation threatens the environmental quality of the city.”
The growth of urban areas will be a key definer of human development in the 21st century yet surprisingly little is being done to maximize the potential benefits of this transformation or to reduce its harmful consequences, notes the UNFPA report.
“Realistic planning for future urban growth calls for explicit consideration of the needs of the poor. It also requires gender analysis: The particular needs and capabilities of poor women and girls are often unaccounted for and assumed to be the same as those of poor men and boys,” says the report.
“And, as population structures change, attention to youth and the needs of the elderly will become ever more important.”
The report urges a rethink in urban planning policy to reflect the new dynamics of urban growth as well as to consider the needs of the poor and marginalized populations.