Cities in Developing Countries

1 Preface

This essay was motivated by a convention dealing with issues of urban planning in developing countries. As usual, it lead to theorizing about well known urban land use models. In the course of the discussion the fragmented state of research related to cities in developing countries became evident. Moreover, the discussion clearly showed that most common urban models have been derived from historic realities in only one country, namely the USA. The situation reminded me of a statement formulated by A. G. Krishna Menon, director of the TVB School of Habitat Studies in New Delhi, India. He said: It is often assumed that it is difficult to understand a Third World metropolis. The truth is that this has rarely been attempted. (1) Though this certainly is a trenchant remark, there is an obvious tendency to explain Third World realities by applying western models. To some extent this approach may result from a similar appearance of cities in developing countries and their western counterparts in terms of architecture and morphology. It, too, may stem from the instinctual assumption that their evolution is based on the same factors which have been shaping western cityscapes. However, similarities are superficial and blurring that cities in developing countries function differently.

Furthermore, the meager theoretical knowledge may reflect the fact that Third World urbanism is characterized by extremely dynamic processes. This is for instance underpinned by the observation that the spatial organization of Lagos, Nigeria's former capital, has a kinetic quality that allows it to escape conventional methods of analysing cities. (2) Land uses and building fabric are changing at a pace making it next to impossible to implement planning schemes based on empirical surveys and land use mappings. A prime example for practical problems associated with rapid transformation and growth of cities is the (updated) Griffin-Ford model which referred to Latin American cities. It was soon criticized, though it was well founded in urban realities. However, those realities significantly changed within a few years.

Last but not least many countries, first of all India, represent extremely intricate socio-economic systems. With respect to many studies in India M. Ananthakrishnan concludes that it has been found that Indian cities defy social modeling. (3)

This article highlights some crucial aspects of urban realities in developing countries. One objective is to describe spatial patterns and morphological features of cities and metropolitan areas, respectively. Secondly, the article aims at discussing triggers and drivers of transformation processes. In this context it is important to casually sketch planning policies. (4)

This treatise is based on a variety of sources ranging from mere statistics to comprehensive reports like publications of UN-Habitat. It, too, reflects observations and experiences of the author who traveled many developing countries.


(1) A. G. Krishna Menon: The Complexity of Indian Urbanism.

(2) Isichei, U.: From and for Lagos. Archis, 1 / 2002.

(3) Ananthakrishnan, Malathi: The Urban Social Pattern of Navi Mumbai, India; Blacksburg, Virginia 1998.

(4) For more detailed information see the case study Master Plan Delhi 2021.