The problems faced by towns are of two different kinds, namely decline and growth, and these problems are of quite different degrees of importance. It has already been said that old established towns often find a new lease of life in a new function such as light industry or tourism, so that relatively few towns decline.
Much more important is the problem of town growth which is taking place at an increasing rate in all parts of the world and which brings in its wake a whole series of other problems.
1. Urban Decline Problem:
Towns may decline for a number of reasons such as changes in forms of transport, exhaustion of mineral deposits, decline of certain industries, or as a result of competition from nearby towns. Changes in transport may cause a town to decline because new roads by-pass the town and divert trade to other centres, or changes in the relative importance of different types of transport may reduce a town’s status.
For instance many old caravan towns near the desert borders, such as Timbuktu, have suffered some decline with the decline of the caravan trade and the change to more modern forms of transport.
Ports may decline because large modern shipping cannot reach them. Similarly towns with ‘port-of-call’ functions may decline when new forms of transport make it no longer necessary to stop at certain points, e.g. St. Helena and Ascension in the Atlantic Ocean were once much more important as ports-of-call than they are today.
Closure of canals, railways, bridges or roads may also lead to decline in towns associated with them. This closure is sometimes caused by a political boundary cutting routes, as in the case of Hamburg and thus reducing the town’s field or hinterland so that development is hampered. In fact towns which suffer because of transport changes often merely stagnate; their decline is relative to the more prosperous, expanding and developing towns in surrounding areas.
Towns based on the extraction of minerals, fishing ports and lumber camps are subject to decline when the resource which they exploit is exhausted or no longer finds a market. Some mining towns disappear altogether or dwindle into ghost towns with only a few inhabitants out of the thousands who lived there at the peak of the town’s prosperity.
Many such ghost towns are found in western U.S.A. where small gold and silver deposits were worked by prospectors who moved on to the next discovery, constantly in search of quick profits. Fishing ports may decline because their scale of operations is too small to compete with highly mechanized commercial fishing fleets, or because fish stocks are exhausted.
In some cases fish have been known to change their traditional migratory patterns, e.g. herring stopped entering the Baltic Sea in the fifteenth century, and more recently, sardines and pilchards have moved south from the Cornish coast.
Some ports decline because their channels become silted and too shallow for shipping or because the commodity they used to deal with is no longer produced in the hinterland, e.g. many small coal exporting ports in Britain have declined with the reduction in the use and export of coal.
Decline in the use of coal in favour of other fuels may lead to the decline of industrial towns based on coalfields, but such a decline is usually due to a combination of factors such as poor accessibility or competition from similar goods produced more cheaply elsewhere. Many regions of Britain which were traditionally important industrial areas have declined in this way.
In Lancashire, for example, competition from cotton textiles produced overseas, especially in Hong Kong, combined with the decline of the coalfield to reduce the importance of some of the industrial towns in the area. While many of the more accessible towns such as Wigan and Oldham have developed new industries such as plastics and electrical goods and have been revitalized, some of the inaccessible towns on the edge of the Pennines, such as Rochdale, Nelson and Bacup have been unable to attract new industries and continue to decline.
In the U.S.A. the problem of accessibility to the main home markets to the west of the Appalachians is one of the major factors in the decline of some New England industrial towns. Even Pittsburgh, once the ‘steel capital of the world’, has its problems, as manufacturing concentrates more and more on the Lake-shore towns, e.g. Cleveland, which have easier access to Lake Superior and Labrador iron ore and can also obtain oil and other modern fuels more easily than the older towns of the Appalachian coalfield.
The decline of towns may be complete, as in some mining settlements, or it may be only relative, but it usually causes problems of unemployment and poverty, unless action is taken to inject new life into the town. Picturesque ports, and even mining towns in mountain areas can turn to tourism. Transport can sometimes be improved to bring a town back into prominence. But in old industrial areas these solutions are not always possible.
Most governments tackle the problem by giving incentives for new industries to set up in old towns, and many light industries have moved into such areas, though not always in great enough numbers to meet the needs in declining towns. Thus electrical, plastic and rubber industries have been developed in old South Wales mining towns but these are not enough to provide employment for all the people who no longer work in the mines.
The result is regional depopulation from areas which are declining and which often have old, dirty, congested housing and a dismal appearance, derelict land, tip heaps or open-cast pits and other unpleasant features which encourage people to move away. This may be the logical answer to the problem but in its turn it creates fresh problems.
The people move to more prosperous towns helping to increase the problems of growth and the net result is a very unbalanced population distribution pattern as well as regional differences in development, incomes and employment opportunities.
2. Urban Growth Problem:
Town decline may only be a temporary problem and in any case it only affects a minority of towns, but town growth and urbanization is a problem which has not only been important in the past but will continue to become more and more difficult to cope with in the future.
(a) Rural-urban migration:
There are two reasons for urban growth. Firstly towns form concentrations of population and in each succeeding generation these concentrations will become greater by natural increase unless they are kept in check by out-migration. Migration from towns to rural areas, however, is the exception rather than the rule and thus natural increase contributes significantly to urban growth.
Secondly towns are constantly gaining population by in-migration—the drift to the towns. It is important to realize that this is not a modern problem. People have been attracted to towns for one reason or another ever since towns were first established. Some of the most ancient civilizations discovered by archaeologists were based on large cities and in newly-settled countries, as soon as the land has actually been opened up, the drift to the towns begins.
In some countries still gaining population by migration, immigrants rarely settle in the countryside at all but prefer to stay in the towns. This is why urbanization has been so rapid in Australia, where about three-quarters of the population live in towns.
The drift to the towns is the result of a number of factors:
i. Rural overpopulation:
Overpopulation in country districts is a major factor in the drift to the towns. Depending upon the methods of farming employed, there comes a point at which land can support no more people. Some people react to this by opening up new lands or by migrating to new countries, but the vast majority move to the nearest towns in search of urban employment.
ii. Employment opportunities:
Towns provide better employment opportunities, both in terms of numbers of jobs and rates of pay. Where country life is hard, farms are isolated and agricultural incomes low, there is a strong incentive for rural depopulation. In almost every country, whether advanced or underdeveloped, the attraction of the town is such that rural depopulation takes place.
In underdeveloped countries, such migration occurs even when the prospects of employment, housing or improvements in earning power in the towns are practically nonexistent.
iii. Lure of the towns:
Not all reasons for moving to towns are sound economic ones. There is a lure about towns, pictured as busy, full of life, up-to-date, and exciting, which appeals to country people all over the world, especially if their own lives are hard or their homes isolated. Shops and entertainment facilities are of course better in towns. In developing countries the first places to experience economic growth and offer new amenities are the cities. They offer opportunities and attractions quite unknown in country districts.
In the past, and even in some places today, country people have moved into towns for protection in times of political instability. The concentration of population and the feeling that there is safety in numbers has drawn people to towns for many centuries. One of the major functions of old towns, with their strong walls and defensive sites was to protect their people and those of surrounding areas.
v. Educational and other factors:
In modern times people often move to towns because their education has fitted them for work which cannot be found in country districts. As education becomes more widespread, dissatisfaction with rural conditions becomes more general and the number of people with qualifications for town-based employment also increases. This gives added impetus to rural-urban migration.
Also because of education, among other factors, some people move to towns not for their own benefit but for that of their children. Schools and hospitals are often better equipped in urban areas and books are more readily available.
(b) The Third World City:
The last 150 years has witnessed a major change in the distribution of the world population between town and countryside. The movement of people to the towns first occurred in the now industrialized countries but today it is the underdeveloped countries which lead the rates of town growth.
More than one person in two of the world’s town dwellers lives in the underdeveloped world. Whereas rates of urban growth in the developed world are now low depending almost entirely on natural increase, Dacca is growing at a rate of over 16 per cent per year, Guadalajara, Mexico, at over 12 per cent, and Lima and Kinshasa at almost 12 per cent per year.
Compared with the growth of towns in the developed world, the present, very rapid urban growth in the underdeveloped countries shows some essential differences.
First, rural-urban migration is much more important than natural increase as the major cause of town growth. Immigration into Rio de Janeiro is something like 5,000 people a week.
Second, rates of natural increase are much higher than was the case at the peak of urban growth in the developed world.
Third, whereas industrialization met the demand for jobs in western Europe and the U.S.A., where towns grew as manufacturing centres, industrial development is unlikely to provide jobs for the majority of people entering Third World cities.
Instead, these people must seek what livelihood they can in an ‘informal’ service sector. In many Third World cities, a large proportion of the people are employed in casual activities as car washers, night-watchmen, boot-blacks, hawkers and street traders.
Fourth, the growth of housing is totally unable to keep pace with demand and people are forced to construct temporary accommodation from wood and corrugated iron in squatter settlements. Squatters make up 40 per cent of the population of Caracas, 30 per cent of that of Jakarta and 45 percent of that of Lima.
Fifth, the movement of people to the towns is unlikely to slow in the underdeveloped world because, in contrast to the western world, where the ‘pull’ of the town was the major reason for migration, it is often the profound lack of development in the countryside which is the main reason for movement to the towns in the Third World. In many underdeveloped countries even an unskilled worker in the town can earn twice as much as the average subsistence farmer.
(c) Primate cities:
Urban growth is continually increasing, especially in developing countries. There are now at least 150 ‘million cities’ and of these fifty or more are in Asia, excluding Asiatic U.S.S.R. and another twenty or more are in Africa and Latin America. In China, India and Japan population growth, though unevenly distributed, is more similar to the western pattern, embracing not only the largest cities but also the large and moderate sized towns.
However, in many developing countries the strains imposed by city growth are exacerbated by the almost exclusive development of primate cities. A single, usually a capital city, completely dominates the whole country- Caracas, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Bogota, Santiago, Lima, Havana, Lagos, Kinshasa, Dacca, Rangoon, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Manila are examples.
Many primate cities owed their initial growth to colonial administrations. Europeans built towns in countries which had hitherto no urban development and often chose one, usually on the coast for easy communication with the mother country, to be a centralized administrative headquarters. With independence the capital city was retained because the new government had no more secure hold over its probably heterogeneous territory than had the colonial power.
Once a city has become established in primacy the problem snowballs for it is the chief attraction for economic development and also provides the greatest labour supplies. In theory the greater the economic development of a country the more towns will grow so that a ‘normal’ urban hierarchy is produced, but in fact, where one city overshadows all the others in a country which is basically poor this cannot happen.
Only where mineral resources (as in Brazil) or multiple states (as in Australia) produce a number of competing large cities can rural migrants be expected to move to more than one centre. Moreover with people deserting the countryside the chance of agricultural and small town development is lessened because more national funds have to be devoted to urban problems.
Finally the population of the growing cities of the Third World is overwhelmingly poor and can do little, by the provision of taxes, to aid the improvement of facilities in the cities. The future planning of cities will have to be radically changed in emphasis to cope with problems which have never occurred in the developed world.
Solutions of urban problems:
Solutions to most urban problems are extremely difficult to find. Most hinge upon better town planning and on the enforcement of laws which restrict unplanned development. The problem of urban sprawl has been tackled in several ways. Where building land on the outskirts of towns is scarce or expensive because prices are high or because landowners or planning authorities restrict building, development often takes place in smaller settlements at a little distance from the major cities.
But this in turn leads to greater traffic problems as more and more people have to travel long distances to work and traffic congestion increases. Another way of limiting urban growth is to give incentives to industry to disperse to a number of smaller centres, often in declining regions which provide many migrants to major centres. In many countries a few towns or even a single city have far outstripped others and incentives such as tax relief, cheap land prices or monetary grants are given to industries setting up in smaller centres to keep population and economic development more evenly distributed.
One way in which many countries have sought to overcome the problem of ever-growing cities is by building completely New Towns at a distance from the main urban centres. Such towns have industrial as well as residential areas and aim to provide employment as well as better housing for people who move from the major towns to the New Towns. Britain has many New Towns, some of which have been more successful than others.
Many within the ‘commuter belt’ still have a large outflow of labour to London or other large cities but others have succeeded in providing adequate and suitable employment for the population within their own areas. Britain’s most ambitious project is the new city of Milton Keynes, mid-way between London and Birmingham.
The area to be covered by the city includes several existing small towns and many villages. When development began in 1967 the existing population was 40,000 and by 1978 it had reached 80,000. Houses have been completed at rates up to ten per day at some stages of the city’s growth.
By the 1990s population could reach 200,000. Industry is being attracted to the city, which has a good situation in relation to transport links, and about 350 companies of various sizes were established in the town by 1980.
Many other countries have followed the example of setting up new towns. In Malaysia, Petaling Jaya was set up not only to house overspill population from Kuala Lumpur, but also to provide employment on its industrial estates.
As a self-contained new town Petaling Jaya has been a failure because, being so close to Kuala Lumpur, there is a tremendous exchange of workers each day contributing very much to traffic congestion in the whole area.
The better conditions of the new town attracted many of the wealthier people to move from crowded Kuala Lumpur to new homes in Petaling Jaya but fewer workers were able to move especially in the early stages of the town’s growth. Industrial development proceeded well but many workers had to come from Kuala Lumpur to factories in Petaling Jaya while the better-off citizens of Petaling Jaya still move every day to their offices and businesses in Kuala Lumpur.
The space between the two towns is being rapidly infilled with housing, offices, the University and other development.
In addition a further new town is now being developed at Shah Alam between Petaling Jaya and Port Kelang and more development is also envisaged at the seaward end of what is becoming a new conurbation, small by world standards but unusual in being planned almost from the beginning. The region will attract even more rural migrants but at the same time should provide a market which will attract further industrial development.