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A drift in a sea of global urban research

Book review of: Eugenie Birch and Susan Wachter. Global Urbanization
Danielle Labbé
Bibliographical reference

Birch E.L, Wachter S.W. (eds) 2009. Global Urbanization. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

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1John Friedmann (2005: x) recently wrote that most of the scholarly accounts of urbanization in China “are essentially snapshots taken at a single point in time that will soon acquire the feel of a distant, bygone era”. Beyond its application to the China case, Friedmann’s comment conveys a common impression among students of world urbanization, constantly grappling with the challenge of keeping up with a multifaceted and rapidly changing phenomenon. The collection of essays assembled by Birch and Wachter is therefore a welcome addition to the growing literature on the worldwide urbanization process, bringing together a sea of information about urban populations, research methods, and municipal governance.

2This compendium draws together papers presented at a conference entitled ‘Towards a Twenty-First-Century Urban Agenda’, which was held in Italy in 2007 under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation. The resulting volume is structured around three basic – yet fundamental – questions: Who are the world’s new urban dwellers? Where will they live? And how can we best finance and supply adequate urban services to this growing urban population? Answers to these questions are provided through 18 short essays – most of them less than 10 pages long – organized along three main themes: the demographic and geographic dimensions of urban growth; emerging methods to measure and model this growth; and local public finance and service delivery. The book closes with a series of case studies from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

3The book’s approach is overtly multidisciplinary. The editor can indeed be commended for having brought together perspectives from academic fields that, while sharing a common concern for the urbanization process, have yet to engage more deeply with each other. Successive chapters are framed by the disciplines of demography, geography, planning, gender studies, public administration, economics, urban management, real estate, education, and environmental studies. In addition to this wide-array of scholarly contributions, Global Urbanization features case studies and reflections from the field written by a variety of development practitioners, including planning and development professionals working for UN-HABITAT, local and international NGOs, and government officials.

4This edited collection gives the Global South center stage and thus acknowledges that future urban growth will mostly take place outside of the Western World. Birch and Wachter set the tone for this geographic orientation. In Chapter 1, ‘World Urbanization: The Critical Issue of the Twenty-First Century’, they situate current and forecasted population changes in cities and urban regions of the developing world within global demographic prospects. The discussion usefully highlights persistent myths about urban population trends and the practical implications of these common stereotypes. We are reminded that urban growth is slowing down in the developing world and that contrary to popular views, most of this growth will not only occur in megacities but in medium- and small-size cities – places which are in dire need for more research attention and aid resources. Closing this first part, Anthony Yeh’s chapter, ‘Urban Growth and Spatial Development: The China Case’ traces a brief history of urbanization in the People’s Republic of China since the mid-20th century. This concise synthesis chapter is a nice supplement to previous discussions of global demographic changes, highlighting how local contingencies and heavy-handed state policies modulate urban population and spatial growth in China.

5Part II, ‘Urban Spatial Growth and Development’, takes a more methodological orientation, emphasizing the need to probe urbanization more deeply through finer-grained modeling techniques that account for differentiation within cities and between urban regions. A central argument put forward in this part is that developing countries and their governments need to tap more extensively into recent technological advances to monitor urban growth. Successive chapters seek to demonstrate how GIS, remote sensing, and predictive growth models can be used to understand and manage the urban expansion process at the global, national, and municipal scales. Chapter 9, by Karen C. Seto, illustrates this through the application of remote-sensing techniques to improve environmental management in the rapidly urbanizing contexts of China and India. Chapter 10, by Wilber Ottichilo, further shows how timely data on urban growth in Nairobi can be extracted from remote sensing to palliate for the city’s outdated and incomplete cadastral system.

6Part III, ‘Urban Governance and Finance’, addresses in turn: fiscal reforms in the developing world; public-private partnerships in the U.S, Europe, and Asia; land-use management in Chinese cities; and the financing of housing and public services. Collectively, the four contributions in this part draw attention to the actual, everyday issues that confront international, national, and municipal actors who experiment with new governing practices and financing mechanisms. Chapter 11, ‘Strategic Directions for Local Public Finance in Developing Countries’ by Paul Smoke stands out in this regard by broadening ongoing debates about local revenue generation beyond mere technical considerations and towards closer considerations of the temporal and political constraints entailed by local fiscal reforms.

7Part IV, ‘Cases in Urban Development’ consists of four mostly descriptive chapters reviewing the state of urban development, municipal management, and service delivery in cities of India, Uganda, Brazil, and Kenya. The authors cover the questions of housing, urban health, education, transportation, water delivery, sanitation, and waste management. Unsurprisingly, these contributions call for more accurate data on urbanization, investment into more adequate urban services, and more funding for research, teaching, and training in urban development. Suzana Pasternak’s study of slums in Sao Paulo (Chapter 17) further provides an eye-opening perspective by showing that distinct urban forms and social conditions prevail in these neighbourhoods which are glossed over by the indistinct labels and categories used in most of the urban literature.

8Disciplinary and topical breadth is at once the book’s greatest strength and it main weakness. While providing up-to-date analyses and drawing attention to new research techniques, governance practices, and urban issues, Global Urbanization lacks cohesiveness. The variety of texts assembled under the very broad thematic umbrella ‘urban growth and development’ and the sharp differences in disciplinary approaches adopted in each chapter prove difficult to reconcile in a single volume. Rather, individual scholarly essays remain firmly rooted in their own disciplinary camp, limiting the interaction between chapters. The more practical contributions are similarly only thinly connected to the more theoretical chapters. This is unfortunate because research that cut across disciplines and that straddle the theory-practice frontier might hold the key this book’s worthy attempt to comprehend “the world’s cities as the central terrain on which the critical issues of human development will play out over the course of the twenty-first century” (p. 3).

9Global Urbanization’s loose structure and lack of unity are compounded by repetitive content (especially in Part I) and by the uneven quality of its essays. The lack of a general introduction and conclusion further adds to these problems. An introductory chapter could probably have acted as the volume’s backbone by stating its purpose and by revealing the underlying logic behind the collection of texts that follows. A general conclusion could similarly have synthesized the various materials and approaches presented in the volume and, ideally, also framed an agenda for future interdisciplinary urban research. In the absence of such guide maps, the reader is left to her own devices in trying to derive a coherent picture of ‘global urbanization’ from a sea of information and to draw links between very different viewpoints and approaches.

10Ultimately, Global Urbanization is therefore an interesting but disparate showcase of information on urban demographic changes, research methods, and urban governance. That said, readers will have to look elsewhere for an integrated and comprehensive perspective on urban change at the global level.

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Friedmann J. 2005. China’s Urban Transition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Electronic reference

Danielle Labbé, “A drift in a sea of global urban research”Articulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], Book Reviews, 2012, Online since 02 September 2012, connection on 19 September 2021. URL:

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About the author

Danielle Labbé

Danielle Labbé is assistant professor at the Institute of Urban Planning of the University of Montreal. She holds a PhD in urban planning from the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. Her current research focuses on periurban development issues in Southeast Asia. Email:

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