Cities in Developing Countries

2 First Glance

Urbanization in developing and emerging countries is still in full swing. Given a time-lapse evolution as measured by European standards the growth of cities in many of those countries not only looks random and chaotic, it definitely is. However, many patterns which look chaotic from a western point of view are essentially organic. (5) Unsurprisingly, specific cultural traits result in a wide variety of particular urban realities.

3 Western European City Model

Traditional European towns and cities typically grew around a central core characterized by retail and commercial activities and the market place, respectively. Workplaces used to be centrally located. People resided within walking distance of the central commercial district. Later residential quarters expanded to the outskirts along rail corridors and finally filled the wedge-shaped areas defined by predominantly radial urban road and rail networks. Thus, the growth of many older western cities, and the US cities in particular, as described by the Chicago School (Burgess, Hoyt) and the neoclassic economic model (Alonso, Muth, Mills) lead to a pattern of comparatively clearly defined concentric rings and sectors of land uses extending from a central core.

Basically, Europe adheres to a horizontal arrangement of spaces, prescribing a one-space one-function layout. This means each spatial component of a city has its own function.

It is important to note that the more recent expansion of European cities was based on a parallel or precursory extension of transport infrastructure, water and power supply as well as sewers.

4 Basic Characteristics of Cities in Developing Countries

The growth patterns of many cities in developing and emerging countries which became primary domestic and international nodes during the last five or six decades deviate from the land use succession described above. In Asia, for instance, urban space takes on a vertical, multi-functional dimension. The business centers have often not emerged in the historic center, but have been purpose built. Furthermore, such cities are mostly multinucleated. Centers are often located near airports and residential zones of affluent citizens.

The city shape has been determined by traffic based on motor vehicles not by radial rail networks. As opposed to older western cities which are characterized by spheres and sectors of land uses a mosaic pattern of land uses is widely spread. This pattern results, among other factors, from an essential difference between western and emerging economies. In the West the impersonal company strongly affected city development. Its formative influence lead to a strict separation of work and family life. By contrast, developing countries are rooted in two economic spheres, namely a modern style company-based economy, and a traditional economy based on complex networks of predominantly small-scale operators working within an extended systems of kinship. (6) To put it in other words: cities in developing countries are characterized by the contrast of traditional and post-modern elements. (7) Modern business districts and residential areas coexist with traditional quarters and old commercial areas. Informal and illegal settlements coexist with master planned residential communities and systematically developed edge cities, there are vast shantytowns and affluent districts, street dwellers and gated communities.

A common feature of many cities in developing countries is that inherited infrastructure cannot cope with population growth. In many cases it had reached its capacity limits well before growth skyrocketed. Often already deteriorated, infrastructure is stressed not only by increasing numbers of inhabitants, but likewise by changing demand patterns. Modern industries, offices and malls increasingly are sucking water and power off insufficient sources of supply. Moreover, emerging middle classes are pushing demand. Although lacking infrastructure is regarded as a prominent feature of slums, measured in terms of reliability of services entire countries fit this criterion. India's water distribution network, for example, is in such disrepair that no city is able to provide water for more than a few hours a day. Power failures are as common as sunrise. As big a problem is disposal. In India's capital nearly half of the population is not connected to public sewers. In Lagos (Nigeria) less than 5 % of households have piped water connections (compared to 10 % in the 1960s) and not even 1 % are linked to a closed sewer system. (8)

This is, metaphorically speaking, the big picture. In many respects it reflects general trends of urban development in a globalizing world. This fact is to be kept in mind with respect to urban features highlighted in subsequent chapters.


(5) Noteworthy, organic patterns are difficult to control. They are in a way anarchic. It is an interesting fact that the British started a fundamental reshaping of India's urban landscape after the war of 1857 which was nearly lost in the mazes of indigenous towns. More recently the state of metropolitan areas in developing countries has attracted the attention of the US military. An article published in the US Army War College Quarterly pointed out that the future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and the sprawl of houses, shacks, and shelters that form the broken cities of our world. Compare Peters, Ralph: Our Soldiers, Their Cities. Parameters. US Army War College Quarterly, Spring 1996.

(6) To be precise: many are. In Nepal, for example, post-modern elements are rarely found.

(7) Compare amongst others T. G, McGee: The Urbanisation Process in the Third World, London, 1971 and Abel, Chris: Localization versus Globalization – Architecture in Malaysia and Singapore. The Architectural Review, Sept. 1994.

(8) Gandy, Matthew: Water, Sanitation and the Modern City: Colonial and Post-colonial Experiences in Lagos and Mumbai (Human Development Report 2006. Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper, 2006).