Sheppard speaks on urban growth and development for final faculty talk

The 2003 Faculty Lecture series concluded on Thursday with a speech titled “Local Action with Global Consequences: Urban Expansion in a World of Cities.” Given by Stephen Sheppard, professor of public affairs, the lecture detailed the relationship between data analysis of urban expansion and the effectiveness of urban policy in developing countries.

Sheppard began by pinpointing the central problem of urban growth: the population of urban areas in developing countries is growing at a rate between 1.5 and 2.3 percent per year. From this data, he extrapolated that 30 years from now, the projected urban population in such countries will be double what it is today, making it necessary to rebuild existing cities to accommodate for urban sprawl.

“Like it or not,” Sheppard said, “the generation now coming of age will be a generation of city builders.” He then remarked on the consequences of urban growth, which he insisted will have “serious implications for human welfare.”

Among the environmental concerns he enumerated were the impacts felt from reduced access to open space, a reduced habitat and a loss of sensitive ecosystems. Additionally, the structure of urban areas will have a profound effect on the use of natural resources.

Despite these repercussions, Sheppard conceded that urbanization is part of development, and is “certainly not unique to the developing countries of the late 20th and early 21st century.” He attributed increased per-capita income in developing countries to urban expansion and displayed a line graph that represented the urbanization and development of several countries from 1800 to 1980 in order to illustrate his point.

Charting percent urbanized on the x-axis and per-capita Gross National Product (GNP) on the y-axis, he was able to show the direct, positive correlation between income and urban development. This relationship has lead economists to use the aphorism, “Put another 10 percent of your population into cities, add 100 dollars per person to GNP,” with regard to developing countries.

Sheppard stressed the fact, however, that the apparent reciprocity between urbanization and GNP does not create “a ‘recipe’ for development.” He singled out the deviant curve of Latin America on the graph, which, despite having shown an increase in development equal to that of the other countries, did not see a corresponding rise in per-capita income. Anomalies such as the Latin American case occur due to geographical factors that influence income, independent of urban expansion; so the formula, while true in most instances, is not entirely general.

Sheppard went on to present a number of puzzles created by the relationship between urbanization and development, first asking: “To what extent is the process of urbanization ‘self-limiting’?”

He postulated that, because urban development is driven by individual decisions, and individuals respond to incentives and expectations, it would be reasonable to expect that an adjustment in prices and wages would reduce the incentives for internal migration.

He also asked whether urbanization was “a ‘cause’ or ‘effect’ in the development process,” pointing to evidence in developed countries that urban diversity (or variance of economic activity) encourages growth.

In order to understand and affect urban policy, land use must be analyzed and compared to desired policy goals. Since the mid-1980s, highly accurate land surveys have been made possible through the availability of new tools that allow data to be collected via satellite and analyzed by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) that provide links to political and economic data. In order to provide examples of such data interpretation, Sheppard presented a number of pixelated aerial photographs of urban areas that had been color-coded to demarcate different types of land use.

Using Suzhou City, China, as his first example, he showed a number of Landsat images of the city that illustrated its urban growth between the years of 1984 and 1997. From 1992 to 1997, the population of Suzhou City grew from 840, 000 to 1.8 million, or 5 percent per year.

Next, he showed photographs of the city of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, Africa. The images indicated that between December, 1986, and May, 1997, the forest north of the city had been completely destroyed to make way for urban expansion. At 6.3 percent, the annual population growth rate of Ouagadougou is even greater than that of Suzhou City.

Finally, he presented Landsat data for San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Sheppard and a number of his colleagues had collected the data personally in order “to work out the methodology” of land analysis.

His long-term goal is to collect samples of data from many different urban areas in order to draw comparisons to urban policy schema and determine the effectiveness of land-use planning.

In San Salvador, he examined the percentage change of build-up in different urban planning zones between 1999 and 2001.

The results showed an expected increase in expansion of 457.8 percent in agricultural zones, as well as an alarming 190.4 percent increase in maximum protection zones and an 82.1 percent increase in zones deemed “unsafe to build in.” This data is incongruous with common urban policy, which dictates that development should be restricted in unsafe or ecologically sensitive areas.

Enforcement of policy, however, is the responsibility of individual municipalities, and urban expansion is influenced heavily by the political structure of the region in which it is taking place.

“The governing party of the municipality has significant consequences for urban expansion,” said Sheppard, using locations on the map governed by the ARENA party of San Salvador as examples.

The responsibility that these governing bodies have in enforcing urban policy is the crux of Sheppard’s argument that local actions will have global consequences.

In his concluding comments, Sheppard again underscored the importance of the economic, environmental and social problems generated by urban growth and made clear the urgency with which these problems must be addressed through provision of information and analytic resources.

Asked if he thought that alternative communities to cities might be made possible in the future through information technology, Sheppard said that while this was a possibility, the pattern of history suggests that urbanization is inevitable.

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