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Doctor interview with Kyle Farrell

Published Jan 07, 2019

Rapid Urbanization: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Urban Transition in Developing Countries

Kyle Farrell wanted to better understand the dynamics underpinning the unprecedented growth of cities in developing countries. He found that changing macrolevel circumstances, particularly those related to economic and demographic trends, have accelerated the urbanization process presenting new challenges for managing the growth of cities.

What is the topic of your Doctoral Thesis?

As the title suggests, the topic of my thesis is about rapid urbanization in developing countries. It seeks to unravel the dynamics underpinning the extraordinary urban transformations unfolding in China, Nigeria and India. I chose to look at these three countries as they are expected to experience the largest increase in urban population over the coming decades. The events that unfold in these countries will have relevance for many other countries currently navigating the accelerated stage of the urban transition.

Why did you choose this topic?

Kyle Farrell (Photo: Private)

Prior to pursuing my doctoral studies, I worked as a Political Economist for the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat) in Nairobi, Kenya. During this time, it was often noted that “the battle for sustainable development would be fought and won in cities”. What they failed to mention, however, was that this would only be achieved if local governments could successfully absorb the rapidly growing urban populations – this required widespread provision of housing and basic services, targeted job creation strategies and in many cases the allocation of land for planned city extensions. Given that the dynamics underpinning rapid urbanization were relatively unknown, I decided it would be a worthwhile endeavor to explore this topic in a more academic setting.

What are the most important results?

The main contribution of this thesis is the introduction of a multidisciplinary framework for conceptualizing the urban transition in developing countries and its application to several case studies. My research disaggregates urbanization into its primary components of urban growth (rural to urban migration, urban natural population increase and reclassification of rural areas as urban) and computes their individual contributions to the overall urban increment. In the case of China, the results suggest that the urbanization process is responding to economic forces, manifesting itself in the form of rural to urban migration as a response to growing employment opportunities in urban areas. Whereas, in the case of Nigeria and India, urbanization takes on a more demographic form, characterized by a significant reduction in mortality rates accompanied by comparatively high fertility rates. Furthermore, in all three cases, political factors in the form of the reclassification of rural areas as urban played a more sizable role than initially understood. The results suggest that although urbanization is a universal process unfolding in nearly all countries of the world, it does not necessarily follow a uniform pattern. These findings have implications for theory and policy, both of which tend to be based on a rather outmoded understanding of the urbanization process.

Did you come across something unexpected during your thesis research?

What surprised me the most, was that in some instances the policies being prescribed to manage the urban transition did not respond to the identified sources of growth. In the case of Nigeria, for example, urban natural population increase was identified as the dominant component underpinning the growth of cities, yet policies oriented towards stemming rural to urban migration were preferred over the demographic alternatives. This suggested a potential policy mismatch.

Who will benefit from your results?

I would say that this research is important in light of ongoing policy discussions related to cities and global development. In particular, the findings are relevant for international organizations – such as the United Nations and the World Bank – in their efforts to collect knowledge and develop policies and programs that are applicable at the global scale. The recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda that arose out of the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) are the most recent examples of global policy documents that could benefit from such research.

What will you do next?

I intend to continue working at the crossroads of both urban economics and development economics. Having spent the past few years refining my quantitative capabilities and equipping myself with new analytical tools, I would now like to apply these newly acquired skills to better understand the future needs of our cities. Ultimately, my goal is to contribute to more evidence-based approaches to policymaking and infrastructure delivery.

Kyle Farrell successfully defended his doctoral thesis Rapid Urbanization: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Urban Transition in Developing Countries in Urban and Regional Studies in November 2018.

Belongs to: Centre for the Future of Places
Last changed: Jan 07, 2019