Over the past quarter-century, the collective wisdom on how to deal with imbalances between urban and rural areas has undergone a major evolution. This has been particularly stark in India, home to one of the largest rural populations in the world.
The recent Habitat III summit on sustainable urbanization also paid significant attention to these so-called urban-rural linkages. And indeed, the Habitat conferences — which happen only every 20 years — offer a useful measuring stick by which to gauge strategy on this complex issue. The phrase “human settlement” formally entered the United Nations lexicon during the Habitat I conference held in Vancouver in 1976, coined to acknowledge that all settlements, whether urban or rural, fell under the purview of the U. N.’s new Human Settlements Programme, now known as UN-Habitat.
From the 1970s to UN-Habitat’s creation in 2002, the definition of human settlement didn’t officially change. But in that time the idea became understood as referring primarily to urban settlements. In 1996, for instance, Habitat II was popularly known as the Cities Summit, clearly giving greater prominence to urban than rural settlements.
Nonetheless, the outcome strategy adopted at Habitat II — a document known as the Habitat Agenda — still underscored the needs of rural settlements and the rural poor, albeit separately from the urban. It also proposed a host of actions for the “balanced development of settlements in rural regions”: providing infrastructure and employment, for instance, spreading technological advancements and diversified agricultural systems, and making available education and robust marketing support. All of this aimed to develop strong synergies for rural areas with urban development.
Now, the Habitat Agenda has been supplanted by a new strategy: the New Urban Agenda, the consensus declaration adopted at Habitat III. In name, at least, this is a document that focuses explicitly on the urban. So how does this new strategy look at the rural end of the spectrum?
or the most part, the rural finds mention in the 24-page document as part of a compound: “urban-rural”. The agenda doesn’t have a separate vision for rural settlements and rural development; rather, it links the growth of urban development with that of rural areas. The resulting “urban-rural linkages” came to receive significant attention during the run-up to Habitat III, including in a technical “issue paper” that described these linkages as “flows of people, capital, goods, employment, information and technology”.
Close on the heels of Habitat III, India hosted a major conference on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda in December. The sixth Asia-Pacific Ministerial Conference on Housing and Urban Development brought decision-makers from over 70 countries to New Delhi. The event endorsed the New Urban Agenda, and concluded with the New Delhi Declaration and a related action plan.
For the conference, India led a working group on urban and rural planning and management — an issue to which the event overall paid great attention. The declaration notes that urban-rural linkages have “significant relevance” for the region and emphasizes the importance of achieving “balanced rural and urban development”. The declaration’s first two actions points pledge the region’s governments to develop and strengthen “policies towards integrated development of cities, towns and their peripheral areas”, and to “encourage the adoption of approaches that promote … an urban-rural continuum”.