Visualizing Explosive Urbanization: Belize City

As a contemporary Western urbanite I sometimes forgot the extremely rates of urbanization occurring elsewhere in the world. In the “West”, the United States, Canada, “western” Europe, and Japan urbanization occurred slowly from about the 18th century (that is the 1700s) through today. This urbanization was partially driven by economic, political, and social changes brought by industrialization. As states industrialized the logical places to build labor-intensive factories and businesses were the cities, seeking higher wages rural migrants flowed into the cities. As political and economics elites gained additional capital from their businesses the easiest way to make further gain would be to reinvest in places with existing infrastructure, the cities. Socially, quickly falling death rates and still high birth rates led to larger numbers of children surviving to adulthood and need jobs, and with Europe’s continued added preoccupation with primogeniture (passing property to the eldest son), increasing numbers of rural inhabitants sought their fortune in the cities.

While this pattern held for the “West,” it doesn’t (at all) for post-colonial societies in much of the rest of the world, that is Africa, Asia (including the Middle East), and Central and South America. I’m skipping the colonial/imperial-led urbanization within far-flung imperial colonies, which is more of a discussion of the ways power can manifest itself demographically and geographically. Since the 1960s and even earlier in many cases, the departure of European administrators coincided with explosive urban growth rates in the former colonies. This had some similarities to the earlier wave of urbanization during industrialization. For one, rural inhabitants probably saw that with the departure of Europeans increased economic opportunities would become available in the cities. Even if someone was unlikely to become a local magistrate, becoming a new clerk seemed a brighter prospect than remaining in the fields. As economic opportunities dried up, rural to urban migration continued (and still does) because many migrants find that they can earn more in the so-called “informal” economy (jobs ranging from hawking and street vending to prostitution and drug-selling) than by remaining at home on the farm. Further, many rural migrants probably understand the risk of engaging in the informal economy to take that risk probably indicates that the situation is increasingly bleak in rural areas. However, the key difference is in the shear, seemingly unstoppable volume of migrants. Whereas the earlier wave occurred over centuries, sub-Saharan Africa’s urbanization has been increasing for only 50 years since decolonization occurred around the 1960s.

This rapid urbanization in the “developing” world is also symptomatic of the quick transition in demographic stages in these states. Whereas the “West” had slightly higher birth rates compared to death rates, modern medicine has effectively cut death rates in most “developing” countries, particularly in the cities. Increased longevity among urban residents, better healthcare in cities, and high fertility rates in rural areas all put pressure on urbanization. And then there’s is the vicious cycle of state resources and development. Naturally, most governments target development programs and policies towards their most needy citizens. Typically, this usually means the millions of squatters and informal workers in the most populous cities. Policies range from electrifying and piping water to shanty settlements to targeting healthcare clinics and microcredit programs to residents. Without similar policies designed for rural communities (which are believed to “cope” better than urban ones because of their ability to farm their own food), states engender further migration to cities and new squatter settlements.

Of course telling you all this is one thing, and pictures of rapid urban growth are worth 500 words (or more). Below are two satellite images of Belize City captured in 1989 and 2010, Belize (formerly British Honduras) gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1981. It is bordered on the north by Mexico, the west and south by Guatemala, and the Caribbean Sea on the east. Though Belize City (the former capital) is small it has grown tremendously. The images and corresponding text come from the United Nations Environment Programme, they state that land reclamation projects in the city effectively doubled the 1980 extent of the city. Demographically, Belize City’s population increased from 43 thousand in 1989 to over 71 thousand in 2010, this is an average growth rate of over 3% a year and a increase of 65 percent between those two time periods. To put things in perspective, statistics from the government of New York City estimate that the city’s population increased from 7.3 million in 1989 to 8.2 million in 2010. This corresponds to a 12 percent increase between the two time periods and a 0.57 percent average increase each year.

Belize City, 1989 (via UNEP)

Belize City, 2010 (via UNEP)

Belize City is likely to continue growing if New York City is a model for a “primate” city. In Geographer- and Demographer-speak a “primate” city is short-hand to discuss the primary (hence primate) city in a given state/country, typically it is well over double the size of the next largest city. Because of this status, a disproportionate amount of economic, political, and social power is concentrated there. New York City, if New York was its own country, is very much a primate city. After New York City, the next largest is Buffalo (261 thousand inhabitants in 2010). Belize City is also a primate city, the next largest city after it is Orange Walk Town (18 thousand persons in 2005). Considering the entire state, New York City represents a vast demographic weight. Of 19 million people in New York, the primate city is home to 42 percent of the state’s population. By contrast, Belize City is home to 23 percent of Belize’s 312 thousand citizens.

Massive urbanization presents monumental economic, infrastructural, and social problems. Economically, all of these migrants are seeking work and wages higher than their rural homes, often the work is irregular leading to long periods of idleness and potential frustration. The receiving cities are often unable to accommodate these newcomers. Migrants, new residents, require housing, healthcare, education, water, electricity, and sanitation. If there are no available housing for them they often resort to squatter settlements on the city’s fringes. These settlements are more often targeted for eviction and removal, or corruption and brutality, than development schemes. In Belize, local news extensively covered protests by Belize City squatters in summer 2011. While denying squatter settlers assistance and benefits is wrong, targeting development monies for home communities seems to be the most logical way to reverse the trend of high urban growth.

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One thought on “Visualizing Explosive Urbanization: Belize City

  1. Pingback: Uneven Geography of Minimum Wage and Cost of Living | Z Geography

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