ARE cities good or evil?
In developing nations and emerging markets the rise of the city has been unprecedented in recent decades, and it is in these environments in particular that cities can often be viewed as breeding grounds for poverty and crime, as well as environmental and social degradation.
But in actual fact, they also present the most effective places to promote economic development, social well-being and equality.
The urbanisation of developing countries is occurring at a rate never seen before.
Globally, the total urban population grew from an estimated 220 million to 2.8 billion last century, a trend that is projected to increase ever more dramatically over the coming decades, and that story is no different here.
As increasing numbers of rural residents in the Solomon Islands relocate to urban centres in search of opportunity, our urban populations are growing by 4.4 percent per annum, roughly twice the national average rate of population growth, which will result in Honiara, Auki, Gizo and other urban centres doubling in size within 17 years.
This urban growth brings with it an unprecedented set of challenges for both urban dwellers and policy makers to overcome, but one that can be viewed as a massive opportunity for economic development and social advancement if that growth is managed properly.
In this series of weekly articles we will talk about some of the key components that influence our cities - urbanisation, urban politics, housing, transport - and how they can either hinder or help economic, social and ecological development in The Solomon Islands.
We aim to invite public discussion around these topics and encourage everyone to take an interest in initiatives, public and private, that will make the Solomon Islands’ urban environment a better place for everyone to be.
Firstly, it should not be understated that rural culture and the primary industries it supports are a vital component of both the Solomon Islands economy and way of life and should not be neglected.
But is it also important to note that recent research by the UN Habitat and other multinational NGO’s has concluded that cities and towns are the driving force behind growing economies, particularly in developing nations.
It is observed that cities consistently make a disproportionately larger economic contribution and share of GDP than rural areas.
Cities can be great places to live, work and play.
They harbour social, cultural, economic, technological and political progress, and they provide a stage for more frequent and diverse social interaction, collaboration, and for the sharing of knowledge and resources.
Additionally, the economic benefits of urban environments can be numerous.
They provide economies of scale and what is known as the agglomeration effect, whereby firms and industries benefit from having others engaged in related businesses or interests nearby.
These benefits aren’t limited to the private sector either - infrastructure and important public services such as education and healthcare can be more efficient and effective in cities, as they tend to be more easily accessible to larger concentrations of people.
Successful urban environments foster social equality and inclusiveness.
They provide a place for all people regardless of status or creed the opportunity to work, play and live in safety and with equal opportunity.
Furthermore, the more socially and economically successful a town or city is, the more talent, investment and interest it will subsequently attract - the tourism industry for instance will benefit greatly from the presence of a healthy, thriving urban environment.
So why is it that the Solomon Islands isn’t yet realising the full potential benefits of a thriving urban environment?
Amongst many reasons, politics plays a part.
The current political system in the Solomon Islands tends to heavily favour rural constituencies on many levels.
For instance, more than 15% of the country’s population lives in Honiara, yet it is represented by only 3 of 50, in other words only 6%, of national representatives.
One downfall of this system is that resources and funding that the government distributes are often divided on an electorate basis rather than a per capita basis, and as a result urban dwellers and the issues that affect them will too often receive much less than their fair share of government assistance.
Considering the unstoppable current rate of urban growth, so long as this system continues, a greater and greater percentage of this Country’s people are going to be left without access to adequate political representation and processes.
Things are gradually changing though.
With the first ever Solomon Islands National Urban Conference held in June of 2016, the Solomon Island Government and its Ministries are beginning to engage more with the realities of urbanisation and the impacts it will have on the country.
The conference was hosted by the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Survey who are also currently drafting the Solomon Islands Urbanisation and Housing Policies with the help of UN Habitat, which will begin to inform the way that Honiara and other regional centres should develop in future.
The introduction of these policies and frameworks is a big step forward, but it is only the beginning of the story.
The success of The Solomon Islands’ urban centres will then depend on the collaboration of relevant Government departments, local authorities and built environment professionals in implementing those policies efficiently and effectively.
And perhaps most importantly, it will also depend on the willingness of urban and rural dwellers alike, citizens of all backgrounds, to engage with the idea that healthy cities will foster a healthy Nation, and that will benefit all members of our society.
By SAM LAWRENCE
Solomon Islands Built Environment Professional Association