Cities are seen as beacons of prosperity the world over. Ironically, the same year that the global economy sunk into a deep recession, humanity at large became majority urban. As of 2008, over 50 per cent (link) of the world’s population was living in cities. The trend is far from its peak: The global rate of urbanization now stands at 54 per cent (link) and will reach 66 per cent by 2050 (link).
Most historical experience tells us that urbanization and opportunity go hand in hand (link). Urbanization, we tend to assume, means industrialization, formalization, and better jobs—along with improvements in service delivery and access to amenities like education and healthcare.
“In some contexts, an expansion of natural resource sectors creates ‘consumption cities,’ where employment is largely concentrated in low-productivity, informal services”
Urbanization can enable these things. But what we witness today is a wide range of diverse urban experiences. Some people wind up in cities because floods and droughts induced by climate change drive them from their farms. In other cases, population growth alone turns once-rural areas into sprawling “rurban” regions. And in some contexts, an expansion of natural resource sectors creates “consumption cities,” where employment is largely concentrated in low-productivity, informal services (link Paywall). In all these cases, the relationship between urbanization and economic opportunity is tenuous.
Today’s advanced economies also struggled at first to harness the productive potential of cities while enhancing workers’ well-being—with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle offering 19th Century Americans a gruesome image of the urban labour market in Chicago’s stockyards. But with industrialization as the key economic driver of urbanization, the global North saw the large-scale creation of jobs that were not only productive but also more conducive to collective bargaining and regulation.
“Workers in South Asian and Sub-Saharan cities mostly wind up in poor quality jobs—informal and low-paying service sector occupations. Self-employment and under-employment are widespread.”
In today’s rapidly expanding cities, the underlying economic story is mixed. While there are pockets of manufacturing-led growth in East and South-East Asia, much of the developing world is witnessing urbanization without large-scale industrialization.
For example, despite its government’s “Make in India” campaign, a manufacturing boom has yet to occur—and is unlikely to—in India. Manufacturing’s contribution to the Indian economy has actually ticked downward, falling to 16.5 per cent in 2016. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen similar trends, even as its cities have swelled in size. The workers in South Asian and Sub-Saharan cities mostly wind up in poor-quality jobs—informal and low-paying service-sector occupations. Self-employment and under-employment are widespread.
Not only do the urban workers of today’s global South earn less than they might in factory-floor jobs, many do not operate in a workplace where they can organize, create successful labour movements, or negotiate for higher wages and better working conditions. In the industrialized world, the creation of strong labour movements coincided with the cementing of stable, successful, and relatively egalitarian democracies.
In other words, the stakes are high. An urbanization that fails to produce just job (link) opportunities will have far-reaching consequences.
“With a planet destined to add 2.5 billion urban dwellers by 2050, city policy makers must be at the forefront of our efforts to create more and better jobs.”
It is time to link policy conversations around cities and jobs. The global urban dialogue largely focuses on infrastructure and service provision: water and sanitation, housing, and transportation. Meanwhile, the discourse on inclusive growth and job creation mostly involves national governments, regional blocs and multilateral institutions—leaving out local and municipal governments. But with a planet destined to add 2.5 billion urban dwellers by 2050 (link), city policy makers must be at the forefront of our efforts to create more and better jobs.
A policy agenda for job-rich urbanization must take on multiple tasks.
First, it must seek to integrate policy making on urban planning and management with labour market policies. City governments make all kinds of decisions that have an impact on jobs – from regulations around street vending to public transportation investments—but rarely are the labour market implications of urban policy taken into account.
Second, a policy agenda aimed at promoting job-rich urbanization must seek to improve worker welfare in rapidly expanding cities of the global South—with a special focus on workers that have little capacity to organize themselves.
And third, this policy framework needs to be inclusive of the needs and particularities of cities of all different sizes and characteristics. Despite the preoccupation in both scholarly and policy circles with mega-cities, about half of the world’s 3.9 billion urban dwellers reside in relatively small settlements, with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants (link). These are also the cities that are witnessing the fastest growth.
With countries across the global South rushing headlong toward an uncertain urban future, it is difficult to overemphasize the urgency of a policy agenda for job-rich urbanization. It is time for government officials, businesses, academics, and civil society groups concerned with the quantity and quality of jobs to turn their attention to the city, and for urbanists to sharpen their focus on employment and opportunity. ###
Gregory Randolph is Executive Vice President of the JustJobs Network, a policy research institute tackling one of the greatest challenges of our time: How to create more and better jobs. The FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia and FES Washington are members of the JustJobs Network
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