Over the last half-century, a once overwhelmingly rural world has become ever more urban. In 1960, the urbanization rate in the majority of poor countries was less than 10 percent. Just 3 percent of Botswana’s population lived in cities, for example, while Kenya was 7 percent urban and Bangladesh then East Pakistan was 5 percent urban. Even China had only 16 percent of its people then residing in cities. Nowadays, China is more than 50 percent urban and Botswana more than 60 percent. In those two countries, industrialization and increasing prosperity have accompanied the population shift to cities. China’s real per-capita incomes have risen 25-fold since the early 1960s, and Botswana is more than 17 times wealthier. This has been urbanization’s usual historical pattern. In 1961, a 1 percent increase in urbanization was associated with per-capita earnings growth of 3 percent. And the trend is even stronger today: in 2011, a 1 percent rise in urbanization was associated with a 5 percent boost in earnings.Yet while urbanization continues to correlate with prosperity, recent years have seen the striking rise of a new phenomenon: urbanizing countries that remain poor. Urbanization has increased from 5 percent to 28 percent in Bangladesh and from 7 percent to 24 percent in Kenya, for example, but prosperity has stood still. The urbanization of these poor nations doesn’t take the form of midsize urban centers, like those that sprouted along most of America’s major nineteenth-century waterways, but typically of a single megacity. The Nairobi agglomeration has a population of 3 million; Dhaka has 15 million inhabitants. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the ultimate example of this new form of impoverished urbanization.
Uplifting the Cities of the Poor by Edward L. Glaeser, City Journal Summer 2014