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What Can the Global South Teach Us About Cities?

It deals with very different urban issues than the West. Its population is exploding, with all 20 of the world’s fastest-growing cities based in Africa or Asia. I’m taking a long trip through the region to find out more.

A view of Medellin, Colombia, and its rapid transit system. The city is one of 50 in the Global South that Governing Columnist Scott Beyer will be visiting and reporting from for the next 18 months.
(Alexander Canas Arango/Shutterstock)
Much of my adult life has been spent traveling. Long curious about urban life, I lived throughout my twenties in many different U.S. cities. After building a career in journalism — which allowed for remote work — I spent my early thirties traveling across America, as part of a formal project to cover U.S. urban issues. I chronicled that trip, which ended in 2018, for Governing Magazine.

Now I’m taking this act overseas. For the next year and a half, I’ll spend several weeks each in 50 major cities through the Global South (trip details here). “Global South” is a term used somewhat informally to reference the Southern Hemisphere and much of the developing world. It is used to distinguish them from “Western” societies such as the U.S., Canada, Australia and Europe.

My trip, which started in late July, includes six months each in Latin America, Africa and Asia. My 50 stops will be large metros — Medellin, Lagos and Tokyo, among others — that have global relevance. After setting up base in these cities, I’ll take day trips to smaller cities and rural areas, too.

I view this as the next step in my education on cities. The Global South deals with very different urban issues — and in some ways feels more relevant right now — than the West. Its population is exploding, with all 20 of the world’s fastest-growing cities based in Africa or Asia. More importantly, it is fast urbanizing. Because rural living in the Global South remains tough, people flood into urban job centers, often building informal encampments. So for someone like me who’s interested in cities, the Global South is where to be.

I plan to cover several “beats” for Governing. Here’s a list:

  • Housing: Americans, particularly of my millennial generation, are familiar with how home shortages increase the cost of living and make homeownership unattainable to many. But housing insecurity is a problem in developed and developing societies alike. I’ll report on what different Global South cities are doing to address the problem.
  • Transportation: This is far more diverse overseas than in the U.S. There’s a greater range of modes (motorbikes, jitneys, rickshaws, etc.) and transport infrastructure tends to be more privatized than in the U.S. (China is building a new network of toll roads.) I want to explore whatever pros and cons are proven out by this privatization model.
  • Placemaking: Relatedly, I want to see how allocation of public right of way has led to Global South transport networks working as they do. Even during my opening few days in Mexico City, I saw how uses that are politically controversial in the U.S., such as parklets and designated bus lanes, were common.
  • Civic tech: The developing world is generally behind the U.S. in technology adoption, with lower rates of computer and cellphone ownership. I’d like to learn whether that carries over to public administration, and what cities can do to bridge the gap. Then again, I may find examples where Global South cities — particularly in Asia — are ahead of the U.S. in civic tech, and what innovations we could borrow.
  • Alternative governance: One thing that’s more common overseas is alternative city governance models that stray from the democratically elected mayor-council and council-manager systems used in the U.S. These range from informal slums that have internal self-rule, to charter cities and special economic zones that enjoy autonomy from host countries. A research group has mapped out these latter communities — dubbing them "Startup Cities" — and I plan to visit many of them.
  • Planning: Lastly, I will cover various infrastructure issues that can broadly be called “urban planning.” The Global South deals with challenges — extreme population growth, mass migration, climate disasters and political instability — that exceed those found in the developed world. Societies there often don’t have infrastructure to handle it. Many things we take for granted, such as clean water and fast Internet, aren’t available in many areas. I want to learn about how this dictates planning and development across the region, and what can be done to fix it.

The ultimate goal of covering these topics is to describe how the best (or worst) practices across the Global South can inform urban policy in the U.S. Just walking these cities is a sensory overload, given how much more diverse, active, informal and cluttered they are compared to the dispersed land use in America. I hope to bring these cities to life for Governing readers, showing the Global South at street level.
A journalist who focuses on American urban issues. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @sbcrosscountry.
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