Access to services is often worst in suburbs

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Image: This photo was taken in a suburban area near Hyderabad, India. The water supply infrastructure can be seen in the foreground. The area is not yet connected to the mains water system, but these large water barrels can be filled with rainwater or with water trucked into the area. Large sacks of food can be seen in the middle distance, which can be transported into the area by vehicles, cattle and by hand. There are residual green areas in the background – a strong contrast to the relatively dense development in the middle ground.
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Photo credit: Professor Simon Willcock

The world we live in is often divided along a binary urban-rural divide, despite a vast disparity in settlement patterns in and around cities, from urban to the most remote rural areas. New research led by a joint British-Indian research project and published in nature sustainability, considers urbanization by looking at changes in natural, technical and institutional infrastructure. The study, which focuses on the Global South, indicates that rapid change in suburban (as “peri-urban”) areas means that people living in these areas have a poorer quality of life than people who live in them live in urban and rural areas.

“The world’s urban population will continue to grow, resulting in an increasingly urbanized planet, often leading to the expansion of cities as cities expand outward and incorporate land around them. This urban expansion is happening particularly rapidly in developing countries in Asia and Africa,” describes Professor Kenneth Lynch (University of Gloucestershire).

Professor Simon Willcock from Bangor University and Rothamsted Research adds:

“As urban areas expand, the characteristics and available services within the areas change. For example, nature and natural products are often more readily available in rural areas, less so in urban areas, while built infrastructure shows the opposite pattern. This is also sometimes accompanied by a shift from local, traditional leadership in rural areas to more centralized governance in cities.”

The research presents a new theory of peri-urban turbulence, as Dr. Paul Hutchings of Leeds University explains,

“The degree of degradation of nature and the cost of building new infrastructure are important factors in determining the quality of life for people living in peri-urban areas. For example, if extracting products from nature has a high environmental cost, nature can only feed a small number of people. Similarly, if the cost of building infrastructure is also high, supporting larger communities only makes economic sense. In such a situation, resources derived from nature will likely disappear before built infrastructure can replace them.”

“Previous evidence supports this. For example, in East Africa, child health is lowest in communities living between urban and rural areas, while a study in South Africa found that around two-thirds of urban and rural citizens say their quality of life has improved over the past five years . but only half of those surveyed reported such an improvement in the outskirts.” adds Professor Kenneth Lynch.

Professor Simon Willcock explains the limitations of the theory,

This type of negative experience in peri-urban areas is greater for some services than others and varies by geographic area. For example, most food is grown in rural areas, but this can also be done in cities. Groceries can also be transported relatively easily on the road within cities. However, there are likely to be large differences between the groups living in the respective contexts. For example, higher-income households and communities living in peri-urban areas have better access to scarce resources. They can buy their own water, electricity, sanitation and so on.”

dr Paul Hutchings concludes:

“The bumpy path between natural and built infrastructure can be avoided. Good urban planning that enforces the protection of green spaces can preserve part of the natural infrastructure during urbanization. In addition, services such as municipal water utilities can be subsidized so that they can be made available to people in peri-urban areas. Urban and rural planners, designers and architects should work together to anticipate the needs of newly expanded areas and act quickly to prevent a reduced quality of life for the people who live there.”


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