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The collapse of cities. Decentralization and population dispersion.

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Jorge Jiménez Berazaluce

Urban planning has always been the fundamental tool for making cities. Good initial planning is the beginning of a city’s future success, but poor planning can be devastating.

In recent decades the urbanization process has increased considerably. In 1980 the urban population was 40%; in 2007, the urban population managed to equal the rural population; and the trend is that by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will be urban, but what is the reason for this huge increase?

The main causes of urbanization are: seeking employment or a better paying job, building, buying or renting a home, better quality health and education services, access to higher education, absence of government in rural areas, access to clean water and sanitation, access to larger markets with greater supply of products, greater security and more police presence than in rural areas, and access to internet and electricity.

Cities are designed for a certain number of people. If that number is exceeded, there is no problem because cities can always be expanded by planning new neighborhoods on the outskirts or by constructing taller buildings in the cities themselves. This has been the evolution of all cities over the years. The problem arises when there is a massive and uncontrolled increase in population density. Infrastructures, such as roads, remain the same, with the same number of lanes, and cannot cope with this increase in population. Some of the consequences are: increased pollution caused by traffic, increased vehicle congestion and poor waste collection, resulting in a negative impact on the environment and quality of life. The questions to be asked are: When does a city begin to lose quality of life?, what is the real capacity of a city?, what can be done by the institutions to minimize these problems?

Figure 1: Traffic congestion in India

From the urban planning point of view, in large European cities, the response to the massive increase in population density has been the creation of a “central zone” free of polluting vehicles and the construction of very large residential neighborhoods on the outskirts with extensive green areas that serve to decongest the center of the cities and counteract environmental pollution. But what can be done in terms of territorial organization?

The competent public bodies in the territorial sphere should promote, encourage, and even subsidize measures that make the rural world competitive with the urban world and achieve an adequate dispersion of the population. As has been mentioned, the trend in recent years has been the concentration of the population through urbanization. The objective is not only to reduce population growth, but also to reverse the situation.

To counteract the causes of urbanization previously mentioned, land regulation is necessary, in the case of Spain, by means of the Territorial Urbanistic Norms (TUNs). The purpose of these norms is to establish the urban planning determinations, both general and detailed, in municipalities without their own general planning. The importance of the TUNs lies in the fact that they regulate the uses of a large part of the land, which is essential to articulate all the strengths and opportunities for the future of uninhabited municipalities and those in the process of being uninhabited.

It would be necessary to carry out an exhaustive analysis of each municipality (or minimum territorial unit with its own public management in the rest of the countries) individually, but some global measures that take advantage of the strengths and opportunities of these municipalities could be:

  • Improvement of county roads: invest in road maintenance and upkeep, widen shoulders, improve drainage systems and renew pavement.
  • Modification of interurban public transport lines: increase the number of stops of interurban public transport lines, being able to reach areas with residential or tourist potential.
  • Creation of an own brand: to promote entrepreneurship as a basis for economic and social development that enhances the product of the area.
  • Conducting training courses for entrepreneurs and the working population: to train individuals and companies to achieve quality and knowledge in their respective economic sectors and boost the region’s economic and social activities.
  • Creation of an association of municipalities: to facilitate operability and consensus among the different municipal actions to achieve common objectives.
  • Development of renewable energies: to provide a quality of life that is in harmony with nature and environmentally viable.
  • Birth rate plan: to help families financially to have children, especially young families, to develop urban residential areas and to equip urban land with parks.

To achieve all these proposals, government funding through subsidies is necessary.

All these measures serve to make rural areas competitive with urban areas. With them, it can be achieved to retain the people born in the rural world, to attract people who live in urban areas and want a change in their lives and that this alternative continues being of quality and to attract tourism and to make known the rural world.

Figure 2: Mountain village with tourist and residential potential

Somehow, with these measures, some rural areas may end up becoming urban areas in the future, but this is not a disadvantage. The rural population will have been retained and sufficient population dispersion will have been achieved. The growth of a locality also has an indirect positive impact on nearby rural areas, as long as they are able to retain their population and economic activities, because they will be closer to urban areas than they are today, with their consequent benefits, and will end up developing their potential more easily.

In conclusion, territorial policies must go in the direction of boosting and promoting the activity of small municipalities to improve the quality of life, not only in rural areas, but also in urban areas.

Sources consulted:

FEMP – Federación Española de Municipios y Provincias (

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