Rapid urbanisation, sprawls and burgeoning peri-urban fringes

Urbanisation is inevitable with mounting pressure on land, dip in agricultural income and burgeoning mass of human and animal population. On one hand it symbolises development, growth and change and on the other chaos, confusion and dissonance. In the midst of this urban jungle are emerging peri-urban spaces that have acquired an appropriate synonym in the “urban fringe”. Developed and developing countries are battling the challenge of managing these spaces, with the spillover being more pronounced and hazardous in developing countries like India. Uncontrolled urbanisation is creating substandard living environments, acute shortage of services and environmental degradation in and around cities. This is leading to scenarios that are more susceptible to disease outbreaks.

The context
The dawn of the 21st century saw the word “urban” becoming synonymous with “development”, “growth”, “expansion” and “prosperity”. Few decades down the line, the dynamics of urbanisation changed, creating in its wake, landscape alterations with deep impact on human health, marked by permanent and drastic land conversions. In many places, urbanisation was accompanied by deforestation and habitat fragmentation, linked with progressive loss of biodiversity. The corresponding increase in human population density puts further pressure on large and rapidly expanding cities, turning them into zones with high density human habitation, vehicular traffic, infrastructure, population and other ecological imbalances.

Key facts on the growing peri-urban sprawl

  • Urban settlements account for just 2% of the earth’s land surface but have over 50% of the world’s population residing in these city precincts (UN 2001)
  • It took nearly 40 years (1971-2011) for urban population to increase from 109 to 376 mn and it will take only half the time to add the next 250 million
  • Population of urban areas increased from 19.9% to 31% from 1971 to 2011 while contribution of urban areas to GDP growth showed phenomenal increase from 38% to 60% in the same period.
  • Nearly 100 mn Indians live in slums; in Mumbai more than 50% while in Chennai more than a third
  • India’s cities are home to about 380 million people and to this will be added another 300 mn in the next two decades. The massive transformation represented by the shift to cities will rank as 21st century’s second largest urbanisation, after China
  • More than 70% of India’s urban workers earn their livelihood in the informal economy
  • About 40% of India’s population currently lives in cities and is expected to increase to 60% by 2025

In India, rapid urbanisation has brought complex changes to ecology, economy and society. During the last 50 years, India’s population has grown two and a half times, while urban population nearly five times. About 60% of this urban population growth is attributed to natural growth, and the remaining 40% to migration and spatial expansion. Undoubtedly, urbanisation will continue to have substantial impact on the ecology, economy and society at local, regional, and global scales.

The term “rural-urban fringe” was first introduced by T.L. Smith in 1937. By mid 1940s, changes on city fringes came under increasing attention from spatial disciplines, especially urban geography in United States and Western Europe. These spaces began to be increasingly seen as zones of innovation, knowledge and globalised enterprise, attracting new types of housing, transport infrastructure and multifunctional agriculture, with diverse recreation sites and ecosystem services.

Peri-urban or urban fringes have today emerged as dominant urban forms. While in older industrial or post-industrial countries, the peri-urban was a zone of social and economic change and spatial restructuring, in newer industrialising countries, and most of the developing world, they have come to denote chaotic urbanisation leading to sprawl. In both cases, the peri-urban was viewed as not just a fringe in between the city and countryside or zone of transition but a new kind of multi-functional territory. It became more of an in-between, not clearly delineated, hybrid result of different forces operating at different scales. Regarded as a transition zone, it lay on a spectrum from rural-to-urban and one that was a direct result of urban development and expansion. Overall, these urban-driven transitions have been taking place in a new territory outside and between urban cores that are now referred to as a phenomena of ‘peri-urbanisation’

Issues of concern
These peri-urban interfaces – zones where urban and rural areas meet – suffer from some of the most acute problems caused by rapid urbanisation, including intense pressures on resources, slum formation, lack of adequate services such as water and sanitation, poor planning, pollution and degradation of farmland. Marked by scattered settlements that are highly dependent on transport for commuting amongst fragmented communities, these zones are often subject to poor spatial governance. The entire process of urbanisation presents challenges, not just for residents but also farmers who live on the urban fringes. Conversion of farmlands and forests to urban development has reduced the amount of land that is available for food and other biotic resources. By spreading into their surrounding landscapes, these areas are gobbling up food, energy, water and resources from the natural environment without taking into account the social, economic and environmental consequences that are generated by this swelling ‘urban footprint’.

While urban expansion is a global phenomenon, bulk of it is taking place in select hot spots – biggest of which is Asia, with China and India being the most dominant. In countries like India, formal and informal livestock-based food production is burgeoning in the rapidly growing and unplanned settings which exist cheek-by-jowl, making them important contributors to food and nutritional security. Peri-urban areas which form a crucial link between agriculture and high density populations have seen lot of neglect. A typical scenario in these ecosystems has been that of small holder dairy farming. These suffer from lack of support and quality control of dairy farming as well as absence of an organised system of farm inspection or screening of animals for disease. As a result, the increasing close contact between animals and humans in work and living environments contribute towards creating hot spots for zoonotic disease transmission in addition to other health hazards associated with food safety, water and sanitation related diseases.

Link between zonooses and peri-urban settings
Since more than 75% of human diseases are of zoonotic origin, it is important to understand the dynamics between wildlife, domestic animal species and humans in urbanised areas and to conduct more focused research on transmission of zoonotic parasites. The problem is compounded by high consumer demand for local and affordable food, lax food safety measures, sometimes inappropriate policies and low level of awareness and knowledge of disease transmission risks among farmers and consumers. This occupational human-animal interface poses important risks to workers, animals, and communities, in addition to productivity and local economies.

Human induced landscape changes are playing a major role in modifying transmission of zoonotic pathogens, leading to outbreaks of human diseases, both endemic and emerging. Since many wildlife species are unable to adapt to these alterations in their environment, urbanisation is commonly responsible for a decline of biodiversity in areas of urban development. In contrast, some wild animal species are attracted to peri-urban and urban habitats due to availability of abundant food supply and presence of structures in which to shelter. Unfortunately, some of these highly adaptable species are also host for a number of parasites of public health and veterinary importance.

Due to the complexity of many parasitic lifecycles involving host species, interactions between wild/domestic animals and humans are not fully comprehended. The role of potential hosts for transmission of a zoonotic disease in urban or peri-urban areas cannot be extrapolated from data obtained in rural areas. Apart from being a leading cause of species extinction (McKinney, 2006), the impact of urbanisation on biodiversity depends on the ecological structure of urban and peri-urban areas where replacement of natural ecosystems by densely populated uniform settlements in resource-poor countries has a far more different effect than the spread of suburban landscapes into agricultural land in the industrialised world.

Urbanisation is a dynamic process and changes in the composition of wildlife communities in urban and peri-urban areas are important for zoonotic vector-borne infections, because many of these highly adaptable species are important reservoir hosts for vector-transmitted pathogens. Therefore, changes in the abundance of certain wild animals will affect vector populations as well.

What lies ahead
Most modern cities have witnessed a combination of growth and migration with massive spurt in population of urban and peri-urban zones. Their impact on human welfare, healthcare, sanitation and other policy-oriented fields must be integrated across disciplines, particularly keeping in mind the impact of these diverse issues on disease transmission. Development must acknowledge these -burgeoning settlements and address the ability of the poor to live safely. This would necessitate decent hygiene and sanitation, context-appropriate forms of disease containment, recognition of peri-urban poor as legitimate citizens and improved understanding of human/animal interaction.

A more focused policy attention is needed at regional level and urban-rural interface. A more holistic, territorially integrated perspective will help shape the future in a way that ensures greater economic development and social inclusion; better transport, agriculture, environment and landscape. This calls for more effective local governance with new forms of social enterprise and cooperation. Only then will there be desired integrated development in the rural-urban region.

The Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are conducting a 4-year India Research Initiative on Peri-Urban Human-Animal-Environment Interface for research and coordination for local healthy food production, healthy livestock and enhanced public health. The long-term objective of the initiative is to create and maintain sustainable multidisciplinary and multi-actor partnerships for policy-relevant research aiming at decreasing health and environmental problems from livestock agriculture and overcrowded conditions in peri-urban ecosystems. More such initiatives are needed to provide evidence that can support policy recommendations suited to the Indian context and which can help minimise challenges which the urban sprawl and peri-urban settings face.

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