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Is Urbanization in the Global South Fundamentally Different? Seeing the urban South through the lens of economic geography and demography

Authors: Gregory Randolph*, University of Southern California, Michael Storper, University of California, Los Angeles
Topics: Urban Geography, Economic Geography, Urban and Regional Planning
Keywords: Global South, urbanization, economic geography, demography, urban studies
Session Type: Paper
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A spirited debate in urban studies considers the question of whether urbanization in the contemporary Global South is fundamentally different than in the Global North, past or present. Some scholars contend that established urban theories are limited by both their empirical geography and their epistemological biases—given that they come from evidence collected primarily by Northern scholars in Northern cities (Robinson, 2002; Roy, 2009; Sheppard, Leitner, & Maringanti, 2013). Meanwhile, others claim that studies of Southern cities have yet to disprove the most essential tenets of urban theory, in particular the underlying causes for why cities exist (Mabin, 2014; Scott & Storper, 2015). This paper revisits this question—Is the South different? We find that the nature of urbanization may be durably different in the contemporary South, as compared to the historical North, due to a few core factors: (1) differences in the timing and scale of the demographic transition; (2) differences in the costs of trade and transportation; and (3) differences in urbanizing countries’ relative position in the world division of labor. We explain how many of the urban characteristics commonly associated with the heterogeneous geography of the Global South, such as informality, circular migration, and fragmented systems of service delivery, are related to these core differences, which tend to weaken (though not invert) the positive association between urbanization and economic development.

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