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What are the cities of the Global South like and how do they develop?

2023-04-11 09:19:21

In the future, most of the urban growth will take place in the Global South. But what are the similarities and differences between the urban ecological models of the Global North and the Global South? This was the subject of the latest presentation in the Economic Geography Lectures series of the Corvinus on March 21.

In his lecture, Dr. József Pál Lieszkovszky, assistant professor at the Department of Economic Geography and Urban Development of the Corvinus (actually a geographer) made an attempt to describe the present and the future of the cities of the Global South. In his lecture – which was available in on-line form, too – he used a large number of charts and photos to illustrate the structures of cities in the Global South, i.e. Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab World, South Asia and South East Asia. Some of the photos were taken by himself on the spot, and the rest he obtained from the Google Street View. 

The first urban ecological models developed almost one hundred years ago: the sociologists of the University of Chicago tried to identify the spatial and social regularities in the structures of North American cities. Those familiar with the subject will know that the first urban model of the ‘Chicago School’ – created by E. W. Burgess and R. E. Park – was produced in 1925. They found that social groups that can be considered homogeneous are settled in concentric circles within a city. The core is the Central Business District (CBD), that is followed by the residential area of the working class, then a residential area of high status, and finally the residential zone of commuters – this means that people of higher status live further away from the city centre. Other models include the so-called sector model, which took the rents of houses into consideration, and later there was a model, which determined that areas of identical functions may appear at several locations within the city (multiple nuclei model). Researchers examined the results of social polarisation in cities, too, especially when it develops on ethnic basis. 

When examining the Global South, Latin American city models were mentioned first. The lecturer used the example of Mexico City to show the various districts and their residents. The CBD can be found here, too. The main square usually plays a key role, that is where, among other things, we can find the Roman Catholic parish church, the town hall and the central market. These are surrounded by a densely built-in residential and shopping area of mixed status, with buildings of a few floors only, and the modern commercial district is also close by with its tall skyscrapers. Proceeding outward from the city, the change is spectacular: we can observe the elite district, with buildings of good quality, neat environment and parks, followed by the suburbs, which is where the upper middle class lives. These are not detached family houses, but the buildings are well-maintained, and the cars parked here indicate that this is not the place of poor people. This is followed by another zone of lower status: usually heterogeneous buildings, the pavements and the roads are still good enough, but moving around is more difficult. In the next section, buildings are rather mixed, roads are not very good, and people living there are protected by walls from possible attacks. This is followed by the district of poor people (slums), where infrastructure is mixed, the buildings are in very poor condition, but still made of solid building materials. So, in these cities, social status decreases outward from the city centre. 

Sub-Saharan African cities are totally different. Colonial towns are particularly interesting, and Dakar is a good example for them: it was founded by colonizers, and after regaining independence, segregation based on wealth replaced segregation based on ethnic identity. Nairobi is completely different from that, it is, in fact a ‘European city’, as colonizers built it for themselves, it was created as a totally new town. Johannesburg is the same, actually. 

As the lecturer explained, the colonist period and the elements of independence can be clearly separated in certain cities (he mentioned Accra as an example), as it also mattered whether it was the French, the English, the Portugal or the Belgian who colonized the place: their policies are still visible in the texture and the building portfolio of the cities. French colonizers transformed the places much more, as they established their politics on local presence, while the English left control mainly to the locals. 

In certain regions, large-scale programmes were started to improve the living and housing conditions of locals living in the inner areas of the city. In South East Asia (e.g. in Jakarta), it is the so-called kampungs that have housing conditions of low quality. (The kampung itself means a district of lower status and rural nature, which is enclosed by economic, residential and commercial districts of tall buildings.) Kampungs have several types: they can be distinguished on the basis of the status of their residents. In the kampungs of the lowest status, there are buildings where you can rent a bed or a room. Kampung development programmes were initiated already in the sixties and seventies. In the course of that, the leaders of cities attempted to improve the very poor infrastructural and living conditions of kampungs. Some buildings were pulled down, others were modified, more transparent streets were established, and public toilets and points of water supply were set up for the residents. 

The structural model of Arab cities is extremely interesting. One of their typical features is the kasbah, which is inside and surrounded by walls; this is surrounded by the old town, which is usually inhabited by residents of low status, and nowadays we can see the phenomenon of overtourism, too, here – for example in Marrakesh. Additional interesting features of Arab cities are the so-called Arab blocks, which used to be half-private areas. The point here was that Islam women were free to move around within that – nowadays tourists pull their suitcases in these narrow streets, so they are already public areas. The cities of Arab countries living on oil are completely different: the former city centre can be found in parts only, and 90 per cent of the buildings were built in the past 30 years. Thus it is clear that the future of the cities of the Global South is determined by their past, colonisation, then independence, religion, culture and economy together – concluded the lecturer 

Katalin Török 

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GEN.:2024.07.17. - 15:44:04