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In Situ Urbanization: A Blueprint for Inclusive and Sustainable Transformation

By Roberta Fortugno


Urbanization, the intricate process of reallocating people and economic activities within or across regions, has historically been associated with industrialization and centralization, leading to rapid urban growth. However, a more nuanced approach, known as in situ urbanization has gained prominence for its potential to transform rural areas into urban hubs without the massive migration often associated with traditional urbanization. This article explores the concept of in situ urbanization, its historical roots, and its role in fostering inclusive development.

Japan stands as an early example of successful rural-to-urban transformation, achieving a geographically balanced settlement of its people. In the late 1980s, the importance of local nonfarm activities became evident in Indonesia's rural-to-urban transition, leading to the recognition of desakota—adjacent areas where farm and nonfarm activities coexist, blurring the boundaries between rural and urban. This concept laid the foundation for in situ urbanization, a place-based transition gaining importance in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.


In situ urbanization deviates from traditional models where rural surplus labor and farming populations migrate to cities. Instead, it emphasizes the coexistence of farm and nonfarm activities within predominantly rural landscapes. The advantages of in situ urbanization extend beyond promoting rural development; it reduces the cost of labor migration, advances social and economic development, and contributes to a more geographically balanced settlement within nations.


In China, the 1970s witnessed in situ urbanization leading to urban development in the southeast coastal regions. Government support played a critical role in fostering higher value-added labor-intensive manufacturing. However, as the traditional urbanization model gained dominance due to migration, the importance of in situ urbanization diminished. This evolution underscores the dynamic nature of urbanization strategies.


Unlike explicit policy goals in some regions, Sri Lanka's in situ urbanization reflects long-term development trends and people's preferences for a rural-based lifestyle. Many rural dwellers commute to cities for work, facilitated by affordable public transportation. The country's investment in free universal healthcare, education, and increased per capita income has minimized rural-urban gaps and migration.


Not all urbanization experiences yield the desired outcomes. "Urbanization without growth" in sub-Saharan Africa exemplifies accelerated population shifts to cities without corresponding employment opportunities. Karonga in Malawi, despite its significant population growth, faces challenges due to the absence of local governance. The lack of modern institutions hampers formal urban development, exacerbating environmental hazards and disasters.


In situ urbanization emerges as a transformative approach to urban development, challenging traditional models. Encouraging local nonfarm activities and preserving rural lifestyles promotes inclusivity and reduces migration pressures. However, challenges persist, as evident in sub-Saharan Africa and Karonga, emphasizing the need for comprehensive planning and local governance.


OCCAM believes in the transformative potential of in-situ urbanization as a catalyst for sustainable and inclusive development. We believe that by supporting local nonfarm activities, investing in healthcare and education, and fostering sustainable economic growth, we can contribute to building resilient and thriving communities.




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