As the U.N. observes, 2007 is a turning point in global history. For the first time in the history of humankind, the majority of people are city dwellers.

A New York Times profile of visionary Stewart Brand describes his view of a rapidly urbanizing world:

He now looks at the rapidly growing megacities of the third world not as a crisis but as good news: as villagers move to town, they find new opportunities and leave behind farms that can revert to forests and nature preserves. Instead of worrying about population growth, he’s afraid birth rates are declining too quickly, leaving future societies with a shortage of young people.

Indeed there is good news and new opportunities; and yes, some of the abandoned hinterlands are regenerating their natural vegetation. However, there is far too much misery and suffering in the global urbanization trend to unreservedly label it as beneficial.

Some of the numbers are fairly well known and covered in publications like the U.N.’s The Challenge of Slums (2003). There are a billion slum dwellers in the world, trying to cope with increasing rates of unemployment, malnutrition, disease and illiteracy. That’s one third of all city dwellers worldwide.

The problems of sanitation and shelter are familiar, but an entirely different type of scourge is making surprising advances in developing nations: traffic crashes. In fact, over the next thirteen years, traffic crashes will become the third-biggest death/disease factor worldwide.

Urbanization is occurring rapidly and car usage is skyrocketing in developing nations. At the same time, substandard transportation planning, construction and enforcement, plus widening income disparities, mean there are more pedestrians subjected to hazardous conditions. Road traffic injuries are already the second-highest cause of death worldwide for children and young adults ages 5 to 29. Ninety percent of the death and injury burden from traffic crashes is borne by low- and medium-income nations.

Road crashes kill almost 1.2 million people a year and injure or disable between 20 million and 50 million. The numbers are increasing rapidly. By 2020, the number of human years lost from road-crash death and disability will be greater than years lost from any of the communicable or infectious diseases. Losses from road crashes will be greater than all war-related injuries and casualties.

The World Health Organization (WHO) profiles crash victims:

Pedestrians, users of non-motorized vehicles — including bicycles, rickshaws and carts — and motorcyclists in low-income and middle-income countries carry a large proportion of the global burden of road traffic death and serious injury. The elderly, children and the disabled are particularly vulnerable.

World report on road traffic injury prevention (p. 157)

Solutions

WHO recommends several strategies to reduce road crashes. Perhaps reflecting its institutional priorities, the main focus is on administration, policy, public process, and research. There is, however, one design factor that is highlighted: cities where private vehicles are given first priority in the name of “mobility” are especially deadly. The report identifies a number of design interventions that can correct this.

The focus on mobility has meant investment in constructing and maintaining infrastructure — that is, cars and roads — for private and commercial motorized transport, to the relative neglect of public transport and of the safety of non-motorized road users such as pedestrians and cyclists. This has placed a heavy burden on the health sector. (p. 9)

… Land-use planning practices and “smart growth” land-use policies — development of high-density, compact buildings with easily accessible services and amenities — can serve to lessen the exposure risk of road users. (p. 110)

The cities of the developing nations need immediate and comprehensive programs of pedestrian oriented planning and design, mass transit, and transit oriented development. Some design examples and sources of expertise might include the following.

  • Many middle income nations have made a start building public transit systems. There is a long way to go, however, to catch up to the global leaders in this area like Germany, Switzerland and Japan.
  • Transit doesn’t have to be gold-plated. Many European cities have very inexpensive rapid bus systems. A lane is separated and dedicated to buses with a continuous low curb. Stops are spaced 1/4 mile apart instead of every block. Boarding tickets or cards are sold in stores or kiosks, but not from the bus driver. With those ingredients a locality can build a cheap transit line that can get across town, even in peak hour traffic, as quickly as any car.
  • Countries like the Netherlands and Sweden have developed many innovations for pedestrian and bicycle friendly design, such as physically separated bike lanes.
  • Organizations like The International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU) engage in pedestrian-oriented planning and education in developing nations.

Building neighborhoods with limited resources, ad-hoc designs and under substandard conditions is the specialty of squatter settlements. The term “slums” refers to the environmental aspects of an area, while “squatter settlements” refers to the legality of the land ownership and other infrastructure provision. Given half a chance, squatter settlements can do well for themselves.

Robert Neuwirth’s book Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A New Urban World is a first-hand account of squatter settlements in Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi, Mumbai, Istanbul and other cities. The level of sophistication reached by squatters can be remarkable: Multistory, multifamily buildings; sewer, water and electrical infrastructure; even upscale retail outlets. Squatter settlements are not necessarily poor. In some, residents find greater economic opportunity than in “legal” neighborhoods.

Squatter settlements carry their own perils and should not be romanticized, but the initiative and can-do attitude of squatter builders is often amazing. The construction of dedicated transit lanes and pedestrian oriented urban design is well within their capabilities.

A related policy field is urban upgrading: upgrading existing slums and squatter settlements through the official provision of water & sewer service and thoroughfares, plus legalizing and recording property ownership. Instead of resettlement, which has been implemented for decades in developing nations, many practitioners now favor the upgrading approach as more democratic, flexible, more efficient, less costly and less disruptive.

Resources

United Nations Human Settlements Programme

Cities Alliance — Cities Without Slums

Upgrading Urban Communities — prepared by the Special Interest Group in Urban Settlement, School of Architecture and Planning, MIT

“Measuring the Burden”, UC Berkeley Traffic Safety Center Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 3, Winter 2004-2005 issue

World report on road traffic injury prevention — World Health Organization

INTBAU — The International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism

Squattercity — Robert Neuwirth’s blog about squatters and squatter cities around the world