Learning about urbanisation from the BRICS

It is critically important to draw the right lessons from the BRICS, and both the successes and failures of their urbanisation strategies have much to teach the rest of the urbanising world. IIED worked to draw out some of these lessons.

Ended 2012
Aditya Bahadur

Aditya Bahadur was a principal researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group until March 2024

Urbanisation and rural-urban linkages
A programme of work on urbanisation and the links between rural and urban areas

Brazilian favelas, such as this one in Rio De Janeiro, reflect a more passive resistance to urbanisation, involving a heavy legacy of social inequality and conflict (Photo: dany13, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

The urban transitions accompanying urbanisation have been central to the southward shift of economic and political power towards the emerging economies. Even for the widely-heralded BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – these urban transitions have been far from painless.

It is important that currently urbanising countries learn from their successes and failures. With this in mind, we commissioned scholars working on urbanisation in these countries, held international meetings with these and other interested parties, and developed a series of publications, including: 

  • Working papers on urbanisation in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (and an additional journal article on urbanisation in Brazil).  
  • A Discussion paper and a Briefing paper drawing the lessons together the lessons from all the BRICS, and
  • A book drawing on new census data, adding new material on China, and concluding with a chapter synthesising the implications for the role of urbanisation in both economic growth and social inequality.

In all of the BRICS, urbanisation was both cause and consequence of economic growth, though some of their pro-urban policies were much more supportive of economic growth than others.

Economic growth clearly does not arise simply because people and enterprises move to urban locations. It arises because they are enabled to move towards their more productive locations, which tend to be increasingly urban as economic capital accumulates. The demonstration of an interactive visualisation on urbanisation and economic growth was also developed to focus on the BRICS. 

Social and economic inequality often increase with urbanisation, but the sharpest lesson from the BRICS – and Brazil, China and South Africa in particular – is that efforts to curb urbanisation can amplify these inequalities, creating a heavy social legacy.

South Africa's apartheid system is an extreme example of how overt controls on urbanisation and discrimination can combine to devastating effect. Brazil's favelas reflect a more passive resistance to urbanisation, which also had a heavy legacy of social inequality and conflict.

It is too early to say what the long-term legacy will be from China's migrant control through the hukou system, which once served to prohibit unauthorised spatial mobility, but it too has caused undue hardship. 

In comparing urbanisation across the BRICS, it is also apparent that while their successes are based on similar principles, and their failures on similar mistakes, in terms of applying these principles and avoiding the mistakes, local context is everything.

Additional resources

Urban growth in emerging economies: lessons from the BRICS, Gordon McGranahan and George Martine, eds. (2014), Routledge

The legacy of inequality and negligence in Brazil's unfinished urban transition: lessons for other developing regions, (2013), International Journal of Urban Sustainable Development, Vol 5, No 1, pages 7-24, Inderscience