With the “Third World’s” urban centres housing populations larger than that of entire nations in the North, it is clear that this ever-growing community is producing mega-cities, whose growth and future is a much-contested space. 

To understand urbanization, we must understand the processes that enable its possibility.

Within the confines of urban rise and development, there is an inverse relationship in which urban city growth is done at the expense and through rural exploitation and degradation; this narrative of urban exploiting the rural breeds the reproduction of the power dynamic from urban-rural to urban rich-urban poor; this power hierarchy then demands a local, participatory government which follows a grassroots, bottom-up approach on the state’s part in order to alleviate that power dynamic.

In essence, urban development is made possible through and by rural exploitation, which then reproduces itself within local hierarchies in the urban sphere through the creation of the rich-poor dynamic.

What is the relationship between the rural and urban?

The growth of urban centres has been a long-standing contention within the development sphere.

While claims differ, one commonality remains in the symbiotic relationship between urban-rural, and the recognition that these two geospatial contexts cannot be separated from one another or analyzed as such. Issues affecting one, subsequently, affect the other (Bugliarello,1994).

In relation to the economic, social and physical growth of city centres, there is an inverse relationship between the growth of urban cities, and the decline and exploitation of rural populations. As cities expand, physically in land and population, economically, and socially, they do so on the backs of rural communities, through the degradation of rural labour, land, and resources.

This inverse relationship can then be extended to a cycle in which, as cities grow and use rural communities to further their growth, populations in rural communities’ flock to urban areas to ameliorate their individual and community ill-conditions (McMichael, 2000).

What does this cycle look like?

This cyclical relationship can firstly be seen through the geospatial expansion of urban centres into rural ones. This development, often uncontrolled and infeasible, produces many ill-conditions both within its locales and to the communities it is expanding into.

Firstly, as urban centers gain some traction through industrialization, even on a small scale, they exploit rural populations in order to profit (Asthana,1995). For instance, in Mexico City, majority of the agricultural land was paved over as city centres expanded to rural areas. These areas hosted the most fertile soils for Mexico’s rural populations and without it, these communities lost the ability to sustain their livelihoods (Ezcurra et al.,1996).

Likewise, in Karachi, India (Niath, 1996) and also in Mariana, Brazil (Ezcurra et al., 1996) hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic waste, particularly iron ore waste was dumped into their respective rivers, producing toxic water and elements within it, such as fish. Ill health, both physical and economic for rural communities is a by-product of the effects of capitalism and industrialization by urban conglomerates.            

The next stage of the cycle, in which rural lands and waters no longer offer citizens the ability to sustain themselves and their communities, is the outward focus and migration to urban centres to deliver citizens the economic mobility they lost through city expansion; an ironic and further incriminating cycle.

As cities bring in more migrants, urban centres can optimize their profits and further expand geographically and politically into surrounding neighbourhoods, thus repeating the same exploitation of rural land, labour, and resources; thereby producing more rural to urban migrants (Melchert, 2005).                                                                              

How are power hierarchies reproduced?      

Through analyzing the ways in which rural populations, resources, and land are exploited by urban centres, this power dynamic is elucidated in the creation and treatment of the urban poor.

Poor communities are particularly vulnerable to natural and human-made hazards because they serve as a reproduction of dominating social dynamics from urban-rural to rich-poor within the urban (Öry & Davidson,1992). The poor, migrating from the rural, are positioned as inferior within another geospatial context.

Therefore, physical environments may have changed, but social dynamics are still at play as even urban centres can be seen as having a division between its communities – between the marginalizers and the marginalized (Bugliarello,1994).

As an extension of urban-rural exploitation, rich-poor exploitation is exhibited through environmental racism and resource degradation, which can be analyzed through geospatial differences in regard to pollution rates, both air-borne and water based; resource and medical service availability; and dispossession.

Poverty & Pollution 

Through an analysis of pollution rates within urban populations, it can be seen that poorer groups are particularly vulnerable and exposed to higher levels of pollution. A coincidental mistake would be an understatement instead, these geographical differences are made possible through and because of discriminations such as, classism, racism, and sexism (Melchert, 2005).

For instance, the reason poorer communities can be linked to areas of high pollution is attributed to government segregation in their provided community housing, and because high pollution areas house the only affordable housing for specific income brackets.

These locations are reflective of much more than just geographies but of power dynamics. An example would be that of Manila, Philippines (Jimenez & Velasquez, 1989) in which over 20,000 of its total population have direct exposure to a toxic garbage dump they not only live around, but in. This area, known as Smokey Mountain, has left populations exposed to toxic hazards for over 50 years, with its populace unable to afford a change in housing.

In essence, money buys health, and at the very least the possibility to leave from a hazardous and toxic space (Jimenez & Velasquez, 1989).        

Poverty & Resource/Medical Service Availability   

Similar to the expression of power and class dynamics in the geospatial plane, resource and medical service availability is an expression of environmental racism discourses.

One of the most crucial resources is that of water and sanitation, and its subsequent technologies including garbage disposal, drainages, and sewage systems. While the average consumption of water is 30-40 litres per individual/capita on a daily average, poorer populations such as the Krenak tribe in Mariana, Brazil (McMichael, 2000) or the Dalit, otherwise known as the Untouchables caste in India (Niath, 1996) use roughly less than half daily.

It is not because poorer communities do not need or demand proper water access, but that they have deliberately been disengaged from efficient infrastructure and mobilization networks the state has provided.

Similarly, within the isolations of the urban poor, medical services are not presented readily, and even when done so, many communities cannot take the time off or the financial drain that medical services require, thereby making the poor susceptible to environmental hazards, poor housing situations, and many other human-made hazards. 

Poverty & Dispossession 

Furthermore, the reproduction of rural-urban narratives into urban poor-urban rich narratives can also be seen in the way the urban poor are the most vulnerable and susceptible to the exposure of dispossession both physical, and in place.

Tying into the ways racism and classism exhibit themselves within geospatial contexts, poor communities are also disengaged from state provisioning, mobilization and infrastructure networks (Jimenez & Velasquez, 1989). Evacuations when a disaster hits are much slower, if any at all, and there are no provisions made to re-locate communities into other areas that can provide a similar livelihood.

This is a form of dispossession the government utilizes to further entrench the poor into their state of poverty (Melchert, 2005). By ignoring the needs of the communities, whether that be physical livelihood, or kinship and friend networks, states engage in “dispossession in place” in which while confined to the same type of surrounding – one that is environmentally and physically unsafe, citizens can still not engage in the same lifestyles and bondages they did before (McMichael, 2000).

The urban poor are then dispossessed of many things – from land to networks to lifestyles and most importantly, dispossession from their needs being heard and actioned upon. The urban rich-urban poor dynamic is then not only a physical separation, but a metaphorical one that exists and is reproduced within several different contexts (Melchert, 2005).                                      

How can poverty be alleviated? 

Through identifying the inverse and cyclical relationship of rural-urban migration in the development of the latter, as well as the analysis of power dynamics extending from urban-rural to urban rich-urban poor, we can discuss the future endeavours and interventions necessary to alleviate poverty within urban spaces.

In order for poverty alleviation to occur, local government must be rooted in participatory and grassroots development in order to fulfill six key interventions per (Öry & Davidson,1992): access to fresh water through a pipeline (or alternative) for each individual; sanitation systems for the safe removal of excrement; installation and maintenance of garbage disposable systems; medical health services available to every citizen regardless of socioeconomic status; safe housing in relation to individual livelihoods; and the implementation and regulation of environmental policy and protection.

For all of the preceding interventions to occur in a fashion that is able to alleviate poverty, rather than just temporarily ameliorate it – grassroots and representative forms of governance are needed.

This participatory government is able to diagnose and treat the roots and consequences of poverty, because these are the lived realities they are facing (Asthana,1995).  There is no longer a middle man, or game of broken telephone.

Each city within the “third world” is shaped by its own local political, economic and social contexts. Therefore, to implement the same policies that may have worked in primarily democratic, and Western nations who carry different colonizer histories, in different local dynamics is not only ignorant but is infeasible in producing the same results.

Thus, this strategy of “one size fits all” is a tactically impotent strategy in which its main objective – to further alleviate poverty, is hindered by its inability to further local understandings of poverty. As a subjective term and experience, the strategies to counteract its effects are also subjective to that community; which is why local, grassroots based government is needed – so people’s needs are heard.

Additionally, local government is needed for the implementation stage of any of these preceding interventions because unlike private firms, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) or other key actors, only the state has the capability and feasibility to reach its entire populace.

While key actors work with the state, they are not the state’s replacement (Bugliarello,1994). Without a local government who knows the ins and outs of their respective cities, just like many other forms of bad governance, the state is unable to implement interventions, no matter how well thought out or effective.                                                                                     

  How is Urban Poverty sustained? 

Ultimately, the growth of mega-cities in the “Third World” is a snowballing process in which city centres develop themselves through rural exploitation; this strengthens the city and enables it to expand wider and wider to a point of infeasibility in which inequality and stratification is produced to account for the merging relationships of the city and the rural, producing the urban poor-urban rich dynamic.

Touring through the inverse and often cyclical relationship between the development of the urban at the expense of the rural, moving towards analyzing the methods in which the urban poor remain vulnerable to different hazards because of reproductive power hierarchies, we can analyze and understand the need for a local, participatory government that works towards the needs of the urban poor.

Urban poverty demands that in order to fix the problem, we must know the problem itself.



Asthana, S. 1995. Variations in poverty and health between slum settlements: Contradictory findings from Visakhapatnam, India. Social Science & Medicine, 40 (2). doi:10.1016/0277-9536(94)e0066-2

Bugliarello, G. 1994. Technology and the city. Pp. 131-146 in Mega-city Growth and the Future, R. J. Fuchs, E. Brennan, J. Chamie, F. Lo, J. I. Uitto, eds. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Ezcurra, E., Mazari-Hiriart, M., Major, D., Brimblecombe, P. & Cohen, M. 1996. Are megacities viable? A cautionary tale from Mexico City. Environment, 38 (1).

Jimenez, R. D. and Velasquez, A. 1989. Metropolitan Manila: a framework for its sustained development. Environment and Urbanization, 23 (l).

McMichael, A.J. 2000.The urban environment and health in a world of increasing globalization: issues for developing countries. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 78 (9).

Melchert, L. 2005. The age of environmental impasse? Globalization and environmental transformation of metropolitan cities. Development and Change.

Niath, I. 1996. Urbanization in India-challenges and some solutions. Paper presented at Inter-Academy Forum Meeting, United Nations Habitat II Conference, Istanbul, June.

Öry, F., & Davidson, F. 1992. The poor die young housing and health in Third World cities. Cities,9(4). doi:10.1016/0264-2751(92)90038-7

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *