The great theory debate on urbanisation in the Global South—and why it matters

Blog post by Gregory F. Randolph and Michael Storper

14 Feb 2022, 10:01 a.m.
Gregory F. Randolph and Michael Storper



Is urbanisation in the contemporary Global South fundamentally different from urbanisation in the Global North, either past or present?

This question has enlivened a spirited debate in urban studies over the past several years. Some scholars argue that theories developed by studying urbanisation earlier and elsewhere have limited value in understanding urbanisation in the Global South today. Others contend that, even if urbanisation takes on different forms and leads to many kinds of cities, it results from the same set of underlying forces.

Why does this question matter to anyone beyond urban theorists?

Urbanisation has the potential to expand economic opportunity, promote social inclusion, and enable low-carbon lifestyles. But it can also lead to inequality, segregation, and environmental degradation. This implies that a complex set of factors determines quality of life in cities. If we are to shape urbanisation toward more just outcomes, we need to have a sense of what those factors are, which matter more or less, and which can be changed or influenced through policy action. Answering these questions involves theorising—that is, developing propositions about casual linkages and then testing them with real-world evidence. Theory provides a starting point for predicting the likely outcomes of different policy actions.

Our paper seeks to advance the debate around urban theory and Global South cities by asking two questions. First: Does urbanisation in the Global South look different than it does (or did) in the Global North? We draw on evidence from across the social sciences to answer this question, and we find that a lot of aspects of urbanisation do look different in the Global South, even though some look similar too. Parts of the Global South may be urbanising along historically specific trajectories, not merely mimicking earlier urban transitions. The second question we ask is: How do we make sense of these differences? Here, we find that many urban theories that attempt global generalisation—and which connect urban growth to economic development, demographic and mobility transitions, and the production of the built environment—are quite useful in tracing the roots of difference in the Global South. These theories help us separate what is similar from what is different, while showing how the recombination of fundamental forces—such as technology, demography, and land-use change—can lead to different outcomes, even as theoretical relationships hold relatively stable across contexts.

Take the example of demography. One big claim of conventional urban theory is that urban transitions—when societies become majority-urban—are driven by demographic transitions—when populations boom due to falling mortality. This claim basically rings true wherever in the world we look. But what’s different in the Global South is that demographic transitions have occurred in an era of advanced modern medicine and sophisticated public health systems, leading to much longer life expectancies than in the historical North. Plus, base populations in parts of the South were already large prior to their demographic transitions. The result is a much bigger population boom than what occurred in 19th-century Europe, and thus swifter urban population growth. This may create a unique policy context in parts of the Global South, since faster urban population growth can create more stress on institutions, which may struggle to adapt quickly enough. But this does not indicate a different structural relationship between demography and the urban transition.

How is this important for policy? Consider that many policymakers, whether in Global South governments or multilateral institutions, long assumed that rapid urbanisation in the South results from unprecedented (even “unnatural”) levels of rural-urban migration. For decades they have responded with policies that try to stop the stem of migrants. In fact, rates of rural-urban migration are not higher in the South today than they were in the North during its urban transition, as Remi Jedwab, Luc Christiaensen, and Marina Gindelsky showed in a 2017 article. What’s different is the rate of natural population growth in cities, and the demographic densification in the countryside that enables more villages to morph into urban towns. By highlighting the structural relationship between demography and urbanisation, theory points us in the direction of a better explanation for rapid urban growth—one that might result in better policies.

This is not to say that we can put together a few core theories and explain everything about cities and urbanisation in the South. But nor can we do that in the North. Cities are messy and complicated. And theories are not meant to provide total explanation, just propositions about how two things (like demography and urbanisation) relate to one another. Theories offer insight into how the world works, but ultimately, they must be combined with a lot of knowledge about local and temporal context to provide enough explanation for developing effective policy.

To use an analogy, a theory of climate does not on its own explain the weather, but nor can weather be explained without a theory of climate. We should not overestimate the power of global theoretical generalisation in urban social science. But nor should we ignore the foundation it provides for rigorous analyses of urbanisation processes, and ultimately the ability to design policies that improve urban quality of life.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.



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