Development in an urban context

By 2000, approximately two-fifths of Africa’s and Asia’s population and three-quarters of Latin America’s population were living in urban areas1. These regions are home to most of the world’s largest and fastest-growing cities, where the number of people living in poverty is also rapidly increasing.
By David Satterthwaite

Urban areas concentrate a wide range of social and environmental problems. More than 600 million urban dwellers live in squatter settlements or illegal subdivisions where the housing
is makeshift, or in tenements or cheap boarding houses2,3. Their lives and health are continually threatened because of poor quality, overcrowded housing (often one household per room), and inadequate provision of safe water supplies, sanitation, drainage, and garbage collection4,5.

It is often assumed that urban poverty is a major cause of environmental degradation6,7. However, most environmental degradation in urban areas is caused by consumption patterns of high-income groups and the production and distribution systems that serve them. Ironically, high levels of urban poverty in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have helped to keep down environmental degradation, because poor urban dwellers have very low levels of consumption, resource use, and waste generation. Indeed, the urban poor generally have a positive role from an ecological perspective, as they use so few resources and are the main re-claimers, re-users, and recyclers of wastes from industries, workshops, and wealthier households.

The urban environment
A better understanding of the links between poverty and the environment in urban areas is needed to improve the design and implementation of urban development projects. The first step is to recognise the multiple deprivations that contribute to urban poverty. These include not only inadequate income but also inadequate shelter, public infrastructure and limited or no safety net. Poverty is also caused by the contravention of rights of low-income groups, and their powerlessness within political systems and bureaucratic structures. Equally important is not to confuse environmental hazards and environmental degradation. Most of the urban poor face very serious environmental hazards in their homes and their surrounds and in their workplaces8. Such hazards cause ill health, injury, and premature death, contributing significantly to urban poverty. However, most environmental hazards do not cause environmental degradation. For instance, the inadequacies in provision for piped water, sanitation and drainage often means serious problems with insect borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever but these do not degrade any environmental resource. The small makeshift homes in which so many urban poor live make accidents a common cause of serious injury or premature death, and present serious environmental hazards but do not cause environmental degradation.

Other dimensions of the poverty-environment nexus in urban areas include:

  • Water-related diseases – at any one time, close to half of the urban population is suffering from one or more of the main diseases associated with inadequate provision of water and sanitation9
  • Occupational exposure to a wide range of chemical pollutants from the industrial, energy and transport sectors – more than 1.5 billion urban dwellers are exposed to levels of ambient air pollution above the recommended maximum levels, and this causes an estimated 400,000 additional deaths each year9.
  • Deaths and injuries from motor vehicle accidents – these have become an increasingly significant component of all premature deaths and injuries in many cities, especially those where infectious and parasitic diseases and their underlying causes have been successfully addressed.
  • Vulnerability to natural disasters – cyclones, high winds, and storms – has probably caused more deaths in urban areas than other disasters in recent decades. Earthquakes have caused many of the biggest urban disasters. Floods affect many more people than cyclones and earthquakes but kill fewer people. Landslides, fires, epidemics, and industrial accidents are among the other urban disasters that need attention.

The economic underpinning of the environmental risks becomes evident when comparing the risks faced by lower-income and higher-income groups. Most case studies on infectious and parasitic diseases and morbidity and mortality show that these mostly affect low-income groups10. The same is true for most chemical pollutants and physical hazards11. Higher-income groups have better-quality homes and generally less dangerous jobs and work in occupations where occupational hazards are minimised.

The urban solution
Urban planners and development agencies can help address urban poverty through various environmental actions, as shown below;

More effective links between poverty reduction and environmental management depend on accountable, effective, and innovative urban authorities. Priorities include ensuring provision for basic services for the poor and making land available for housing that does not damage surrounding ecosystems. Also management of consumption and waste generation and disposal in higher income areas. International agencies can support this by going beyond more projects to strengthening the capacity of urban authorities to work with urban poor groups and develop appropriate responses.

National frameworks are also needed to encourage environmental policies that not only address urban environmental health problems, but also limit the transfer of environmental costs to people and ecosystems beyond urban boundaries.


David Satterthwaite is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, where he has worked since 1974. Trained as a development planner, he also has a doctorate in social policy from the London School of Economics. This article is a summary of a longer paper published in the Annals of the merican Academy of Political and Social Science Vol 590 Annals 73, November 2003.

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  2. Hardoy, Jorge E., and David Satterthwaite. 1989. Squatter citizen: Life in the urban Third World. London: Earthscan.
  3. United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (unchs) (Habitat). 1996. An urbanizing world: Global report on human settlements, 1996. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  4. Cairncross, Sandy, Jorge E. Hardoy, and David Satterthwaite. 1990. The urban context. In The poor die young: Housing and health in Third World cities, edited by Jorge E. Hardoy, Sandy Cairncross, and David Satterthwaite, 1-24. London: Earthscan.
  5. World Health Organization (who). 1992. Our planet, our health. Report of the who Commission on Health and Environment. Geneva: World Health Organization.
  6. World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our common future. Oxford, uk: Oxford University Press.
  7. Unep 1999. Global Environmental Outlook 2000. United Nations Environment Programme, London: Earthscan.
  8. Cointreau, Sandra. 1982. Environmental manage-ment of urban solid waste in developing countries. Urban Development technical paper no. 5. Washington, dc: World Bank.
  9. Who 1999. Creating healthy cities in the 21st century. In The Earthscan reader on sustainable cities, edited by David Satterthwaite. London: Earthscan.
  10. Bradley, David, Carolyn Stephens, Sandy Cairncross, and Trudy Harpham. 1991. A review of environmental health impacts in developing country cities, Urban Management Program discussion paper no. 6, World Bank, undp, and un (Habitat), Washington, dc
  11. Hardoy, Jorge E., Diana Mitlin, and David Satterthwaite. 2001. Environmental problems in cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America. London: Earthscan.
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