Urbanization, Security and Resiliency

By Nancy E. Brune

In 2008, for the first time, the world’s urban population exceeded its rural population. According to the United Nations estimates, urbanization will grow from about 50 percent of the world’s population today to about 60 percent by 2030. More importantly, urbanization – and its accompanying pressures – will not be evenly distributed. As illustrated in Figure 1, the urban population as the percentage of the total population has grown around the world over the last three decades; however, the urban population as a percentage of total population has risen more quickly in Latin America & the Caribbean the Middle East & North Africa, and East Asia and the Pacific.

NIC Blog – Urbanization, Security and Resiliency – Figure 1

More than 90 percent of projected urban growth will continue to occur in developing nations, fueled by increasing population and rural to urban migration. 

Researchers note that, traditionally, the largest drivers of urbanization are primarily natural disasters (and increasingly ecological degradation).  War and conflict have also caused populations to flee into urban areas. Climate change and the increasing desertification of once-arable lands have also fueled rural to urban movements in recent years, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Certainly, urbanization may be the result of conflict. But it is also the case that urbanization may be associated with poor security conditions in countries. The (rapid) movement of people from rural areas to more urban (or even peri-urban) cities may exacerbate underlying ethnic and religious tensions, place pressures on weak infrastructure that is already being pushed beyond capacity, increase distributional pressures, and demand governance and better planning from governments too weak to sustain themselves.

To illustrate this claim, the author looks at the urbanization trends in the Failed States 2012 list. Interestingly, of the Top 20 Failed States, 15 of them had urban population growth rates that exceeded the global mean. (For those stats jocks, please note that the authors of the Failed States Index do not include any information on urbanization). Table 1 includes data on the countries (with their Failed States ranking) that experienced urban population growth rates that exceeded the global mean and experienced significant increases in their urban population as a percentage of the total population. 

 Table 1. Urbanization data for Select Countries


Urban Population Growth (%)



Urban Population Growth (%)

Global Mean


Urban Population as % of Total



Urban Population as % of Total



Cote d’Ivoire (11)





Guinea (12)





Haiti (7)





Nigeria (14)





Somalia (1)





Sudan (3)





Yemen (8)





Source: Data from World Bank Development Indicators 2012

Many of these ‘failed states’ which experienced higher urban population growth rates and increases in the urban population have direct bearing on U.S. national security interests and have received some form of (humanitarian, economic and/or military) assistance from the United States in recent years.  

For example, even before the aftermath of the disastrous 2010 earthquake, the United States has had deep relations with Haiti and has provided various types of assistance while encouraging democratic and economic reforms.  Nigeria, which is the fifth largest exporter of oil to the United States, is a critical regional partner. Of growing concern are the steady bombings (reportedly perpetrated by the militant Islamic group, Boko Haram) in northern Nigeria, a region which has witnessed desertification, ecological degradation and loss of economic livelihood – conditions which have fueled north-south migration in recent decades. A failed state for a number of years, Somalia (and its Transitional Federal Government) has received various forms of U.S. assistance over the years. The U.S. is particularly concerned with the al-Shabaab Islamic insurgents, which continue to battle the Transitional Federal Government and have now extended the battlefield into Kenya, as well as the home-grown Somali pirates which continue to operate off the coast with almost complete immunity. Moving northwest, Sudan’s largest funder is the United States who has provided more than $8 billion in assistance since 2005. And finally, Yemen continues to struggle with demographic pressures, rapid urbanization, and long standing regional and political differences. In recent days, the U.S. Department of Defense has resumed the supply of counter-terrorism weapons, ammunition and communication to help Yemen’s special forces project power beyond the capital to combat efforts by al-Qaeda to “destabilize the region and both indirectly and directly harm U.S. interests.”

Managing the Challenges of Urbanization

To be clear, urbanization does not result in conflict. But, urbanization, especially rapid urbanization, in the face of underlying ethnic tensions, weak government capacity or poor infrastructure, may result in a deteriorating general security environment.

The simple analysis which hints as an associative relationship between rapid and significant urbanization and state failure (or a generally insecure, unstable environment) suggests that governments, decision makers and planning officials need to pay greater attention to how to manage the continued urbanization which is projected through 2030.

Below are three recommendations for governments and planning officials as they think about how to manage the continued urbanization in the developing world where governments are struggling with ways to provide adequate resources for a growing urban population. 

 1. Fund Infrastructure

Every year, approximatley 65 million people are added to the world’s urban population, equivalent to adding seven cities the size of Chicago annually. Urbanization may create challenges when the urban infrastructure does not exist to (adequately) support the addition of the influx of people. 

Unfortunately, governments around the world – both developing and developed alike – are failing to exist sufficiently in infrastructure. A 2012 OECD report concluded that Latin America has “large infrastructure gaps.”  Africa also has significant infrastructure gaps – in power, roads, housing, etc.  As noted by the World Bank’s 2010 Africa’s Infrastructure Report, Africa’s power infrastructure delivers “only a fraction” of the services provided in other parts of the developing world. For instance, “the 48 Sub-Saharan Africa countries (with 800 million people) generate roughly the same power as Spain (with 45 million people).” The report also estimates that it will require $18 billion a year to build and maintain an adequate transport network that provides adequate regional, national, rural, and urban road connectivity including all road, rail, port and air networks. These infrastructure gaps are not limited to the developing world. For instance, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2005 that it would take $1.6 trillion simply to make U.S. infrastructure dependable and safe.

Governments around the world should prioritize basic infrastructure funding.  In addition to helping policymakers mitigate complicated challenges of urbanization, many economists agree that “public investments in infrastructure and economic growth are inextricably linked.” As noted in the Global Trends 2030 Report, we can anticipate that technology may be a game changer and may help urban planners deal with the complex challenges posed by urbanization. Among these potential game changing solutions are: precision agriculture, water desalination, greenhouse agriculture, and renewable energy (e.g. solar technology) technologies. 

 2. Integrate Resource Planning and Management 

Rapid urbanization has left policy planners struggling with ways to provide water, energy, and food and housing, as demands increase and supplies decline. In most countries, successfully addressing these resource challenges (and thus stemming urban migration) is undermined by the existence of separate administrative structures and policies for water, energy, agriculture and planning. This results in sub-optimal policies, regulations and resource management practices. Slowing the migration trends by improved agricultural, water and energy development, and other improvements, in rural regions has been completely beyond the reach of integrated planning efforts. For instance, the lack of integrated planning has contributed to the growth of informal settlements (or slums). Inadequate zoning and housing have excluded many (poor and rural migrants) from being integrated with urban development.

However, independent of additional infrastructure investments, policymakers should think about how to work more efficiently.  Specifically, governments should modernize public management systems to so as to integrate infrastructure planning and delivery of services across agencies and levels of government. International and regional financial institutions and international organizations could provide technical assistance and require integrated planning when financing any infrastructure project.

3. Build Resiliency Into Urban Infrastructure Systems

Rapid urbanization poses several challenges to urban infrastructure system. Examples include increased demand for electricity on an outdated electric grid or new urban settlements in areas that are not served by roads, water or sanitation services. In addition, climate change and natural disasters will continue to complicate the urbanization pressures faced by governments, particularly those in the developing world. Whether improving current infrastructure systems or planning new infrastructure projects, governments must build resiliency into their urban infrastructure systems.  According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Infrastructure resilience is the ability to reduce the magnitude and/or duration of disruptive events. The effectiveness of a resilient infrastructure or enterprise depends upon its ability to anticipate, absorb, adapt to, and/or rapidly recover from a potentially disruptive event.” The elements of a resilient urban infrastructure system include:

Robustness: the ability to maintain critical operations and functions in the face of crisis. This can be reflected in physical building and infrastructure design (office buildings, power generation and distribution structures, bridges, dams, levees), or in system redundancy and substitution (transportation, power grid, communications networks).  Robustness is related to the system’s absorptive capacity.

Resourcefulness: the ability to skillfully prepare for, respond to and manage a crisis or disruption as it unfolds. This includes identifying courses of action, business continuity planning, training, supply chain management, prioritizing actions to control and mitigate damage, and effectively communicating decisions. Resourcefulness is related to the system’s adaptive capacity and the notion of flexibility.

Rapid recovery: the ability to return to and/or reconstitute normal operations as quickly and efficiently as possible after a disruption. Components include carefully drafted contingency plans, competent emergency operations, and the means to get the right people and resources to the right place.

Introducing resilience into the urban infrastructure so that it can adapt to rapid urbanization (and other climate related challenges) will require urban policy planners to think about urban infrastructure as a system. Viewing urban infrastructure as a system and organizing the agencies and operations as such will allow urban planners to identify ways to build redundancy and flexibility into the larger system, thereby enabling it to respond to urbanization challenges.

While this piece concludes by discussing the importance of introducing resiliency into urban infrastructure systems, there is a larger point to be made. The authors of the draft Global Trends 2030 report entitled “Alternative Worlds” discuss several megatrends – including demographic challenges (e.g. aging populations and urbanization), the diffusion of power across countries, and the prominence of the individual in society (elevated through technology, education, improved access to health care, etc.).  Some nations may not adapt so well to these megatrends and the alternative worlds they will shape.  Others may leverage the potential opportunities. The degree of resiliency in a nation’s ‘systems’ – including infrastructure, economic structures, public institutions and social organization  — may in fact determine how will it can adapt to these alternative worlds.

Dr. Nancy E. Brune is a Non Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.


Urbanization and the Global Climate Dilemma

By Will Rogers 

Urbanization and climate change may be the two most important trends to shape global development in the decades ahead. On the one hand, urban cities have the potential to serve as engines of change, driving economic growth in some of the world’s least developed countries and pulling more people out of poverty than at any other time in history. On the other hand, climate change could undercut all of this by exacerbating resource scarcity and putting vulnerable communities at risk from sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms. 

Today, roughly 80 percent of economic growth comes for urban centers. Much of this comes from what experts refer to as the “urban advantage:” cities typically concentrate the full spectrum of economic opportunities that are not readily available in rural areas. This includes everything from social services such as education and healthcare, more reliable access to water, sanitation services and electricity, to industries and transportation hubs that are lynchpins for commercial development. 

Simply put, countries have more opportunities for economic growth as they urbanize. According to a 2010 study from United Nations Human Settlements Program, “The prosperity of nations is intimately linked to the prosperity of their cities. No country has ever achieved sustained economic growth or rapid social development without urbanizing (countries with the highest per capita income tend to be more urbanized, while low-income countries are the least urbanized).” Of course, how much a country benefits from urbanization depends on policies developed at the local level. Indeed, urban politics can make or break the benefits of urbanization if local policymakers fail to adopt policies that break down socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic and religious barriers.

Nevertheless, urbanization affords tremendous economic opportunities and most of the future benefits will accrue to the world’s developing and least developed countries. As Drew Erdmann wrote earlier this week, “For the first time in over 200 years, the majority of the world’s economic growth during this decade will occur in emerging markets, not the developed economies of the ‘West.’” This may help foster a modicum of stability in some of the world’s most unstable states, countries like Haiti, whose urban population is projected to expand from 52 percent in 2010 to 70 percent by 2030, according to United Nations statistics.

Yet climate change may ultimately undermine the economic benefits of urbanization in some parts of the world. Urban centers place substantially more pressure on natural resources than rural communities given their population density and the attendant demands on water, agricultural, energy and other resources. And although urban planners can apply innovative solutions to help manage these resource constraints – such as waste water recycling systems – climate change could exacerbate resource trends in ways that may hamper the effectiveness of these creative technologies, slowing or stalling economic growth in some of these emerging economic centers.

But the real climate challenge may stem from development in fragile areas along world’s coastlines. Indeed, many of the global megacities (those with populations over 10 million) are located on the coast: Tokyo, Jakarta, Shanghai, New York City, Mumbai, Bangkok and Lagos, to name a few. Their locations are borne out of necessity: 90 percent of global commerce is done by sea. So while urbanizing along the coastline allows countries to more easily tap into global trade, coastal cities may be vulnerable to sea level rise and more frequent and intense typhoons, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that could result from climate change.

Sea level rise could be particularly damaging to urban economic development. Surging seas can crumble coastal infrastructure, such as electricity systems and road ways, and infiltrate ground water aquifers that supply city water and support local agriculture. Moreover, sea level rise may drive up insurance rates, driving people into bankruptcy while also creating socioeconomic gaps in some cities. These challenges are not abstract or distant either: one need only look to the south of Washington, to Norfolk, Virginia, where sea level rise has already dislocated some communities, while forcing city officials to invest millions of dollars to hold back the sea near the naval station

Typhoons, hurricanes, nor’easters and other extreme weather events may become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change and pose dangers to urban centers. The density of some coastal cities portends extreme challenges for first responders and others charged with responding to weather-related natural disasters. Indeed, the scale of these disasters could be quite staggering, and may even overstretch the capacity of emergency personnel if they are not adequately prepared to respond. Although one cannot definitively point to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina as an example of climate change, the effects of the storm provide a vivid illustration of the magnitude that such a disaster could have in a densely crowded urban community. As a result of this reality, some large cities have started examining how climate change may affect them in the coming decades. In 2010, for example, New York City published its own study from the New York City Panel on Climate Change that looked explicitly at these challenges.

Even absent climate change, it is difficult to disregard the inherent vulnerabilities associated with densely crowded urban cities, particularly those along the coast. In his book, Monsoon, Robert D. Kaplan writes that, “[N]ever before have the planet’s most environmentally frail areas been so crowded,” particularly in countries like Bangladesh, India and elsewhere, where hundreds of millions of people are packed together at or just above sea level. “This means that over the coming decades more people than ever before, in any comparable space of time save for a few periods like the fourteenth century during the Black Death, are likely to be killed or made homeless by Mother Nature,” Kaplan observes.

Looking for Opportunities

There are some opportunities that U.S. policymakers and others can pursue to help dampen the impact of potential climate disruptions on urban cities.

  • Enhancing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Training: The United States should develop more robust relationships with countries around humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to help more vulnerable countries and their cities develop the institutions, tools and procedures for responding to natural disasters. This does not have to be just traditional military-to-military cooperation either. Fire departments and other first responder organizations from U.S. cities can exchange expertise with other officials in cities around the world. And some of this is ongoing already, whether it’s around flood or wildfire response, and may just need to be scaled up.
  • Improving Climate Change Science at the Local Level: Many countries do not have the tools or techniques to assess how climate change may affect their cities. As a result, there is a significant opportunity for the United States to bolster its science and technology cooperation with countries that will enhance their understanding of local level climate impacts. The United States could leverage its National Labs and others in academia to help support and develop sound climate science that will provide better fidelity about how climate change is projected to manifest itself in urban centers. Better projections will enable cities to become more resilient, which may also help dampen political and social disruptions.  

The bottom line: U.S. officials need to analyze urbanization and climate change together. These two trends have the potential to shape global development in fundamental ways in the decades ahead. Understanding how these trends may affect each other will put policymakers in a better position for adapting to potential challenges and harnessing opportunities that will become present in the future.

Will Rogers is the Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a non-partisan national security and defense policy think tank in Washington. The views expressed herein represent his personal views and do not necessarily reflect the perspectives of any organization with which he is affiliated.