The urban south and the predicament of global sustainability


Urbanization is a global phenomenon with strong sustainability implications across multiple scales. We argue that much of the associated challenges, and opportunities, are found in the global south. We show that urban issues in the global south are distinctly and statistically different from those in the global north, but our current urban knowledge is predominantly shaped by research on and from the global north. Cities in the global south have strong imperatives, and unique but often overlooked capacity, to innovate and experiment for sustainability. We call for a renewed research focus on urbanization in the south, and suggest targeted efforts to correct structural biases in the knowledge production system.

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Fig. 1: Population growth in cities.
Fig. 2: Inter-regional comparison of indicators of infrastructure, social and environmental conditions of urban areas.
Fig. 3: Inter-regional comparison of aggregated indices for urban prosperity, infrastructure, quality of life and sustainability.
Fig. 4: Relationship between number of citations and proportion of authors from the global north, organized by geographic region of the first author.


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H.N. acknowledges research funding from Azim Premji University’s Centre for Urban Ecological Sustainability. E.S.B. acknowledges support from the United States National Science Foundation for the project ‘Catalyzing action towards sustainability of deltaic systems with an integrated modeling framework for risk assessment (BF-DELTAS)’ (NSF # 1342898). We thank S. Agarwal, E. Bhar, C. Hilliker, S. Mundoli, A. Tabassum, P. Venkatram and Y. Zhang for assistance with data coding and figures. This Perspective is a contribution to the Future Earth Urban Knowledge-Action Network.

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H.N. and X.B. conceived the paper. H.N., X.B. and E.S.B. designed and conducted the analysis. All authors wrote and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Harini Nagendra or Xuemei Bai.

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Nagendra, H., Bai, X., Brondizio, E.S. et al. The urban south and the predicament of global sustainability. Nat Sustain 1, 341–349 (2018).

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