The “Global South”: Announcing My 1.5-Year, 40-City Tour

January 9, 2023

Catalyst readers will soon be treated to an interesting series. I’m now on a 1.5-year, 40-city tour of the “Global South”, exploring urban issues in Latin America, Africa and Asia. For all of 2023, I’ll chronicle my journey on this site, posting photo essays that show its planning challenges and best practices.   

The Global South—a moniker used to roughly define the Southern hemisphere and the developing world—is home to the world’s fastest population growth and will be majority urban by 2025. Africa and Asia in particular are rapidly urbanizing, with all 20 of the world’s fastest-growing cities.

Having spent nearly a decade covering U.S. city issues, I’m fascinated by this Global South urbanization and view it as the next stage in my research. So in July of 2022, I began this trip, vowing to travel a half-year through each of the three regions. 

Beyond their sheer population growth, I want to see how urban life functions in Global South cities. I’ll spend time primarily in major cities like Lima, Cairo and Hong Kong, while taking excursions to nearby locales. Thus far I’ve traveled through Latin America, and will spend 2023 in Africa and Asia.

There are 5 main beats I’ll cover for Catalyst, all from the perspective of how free-market city policy—aka “Market Urbanism”—might inform these cities.

  1. Housing—The U.S. home shortage is well-covered, including in this column, but it’s also a challenge in the Global South. In Mexico, 800,000 units must be built annually to provide sufficient accommodation for the populace. And that’s just one example; as the World Resources Institute notes, “about one-third of the urban population in the global South lives in informal settlements, where they tend to lack access to basic services such as electricity, running water, or sanitation.” I’ll visit some of these settlements, but also modern cities like Dubai and Singapore, where housing shortages exist too.
  2. Transportation: developing world transport is fascinating for urbanists and free-market supporters alike. All three regions I’m visiting have a plethora of private mass transit, from Mexico City’s peseros to Accra’s tro tros, providing case studies in how the market meets mobility needs. The regions also have excellent state-developed transport systems, such as Colombia’s aerial tramways or the various expansive metro rail and bus rapid transit systems. Much of the Global South is also ahead of the U.S. in public-private partnerships, namely for toll roads.
  3. Placemaking: despite having fewer resources, I’ve found early into my trip that placemaking is often better in the Global South than much of the U.S., where a century of pro-car planning harmed the public realm. To name an example, I’ve grown intrigued with Latin America’s “barrios tropicales”—neighborhoods where public and private investment in local botany has created a jungle-like atmosphere. I’ll write a whole piece about these barrios tropicales, and cover other street design concepts.
  4. Planning—much of the Global South is nonetheless underdeveloped. The three regions struggle to provide clean water, flood control, fast internet, competent policing and other infrastructure that Americans take for granted. The fact that large percentages of the population settle in informal slums with patchwork utilities is a case in point. I will profile the role that government corruption has played in perpetuating this and whether market actors could do better.
  5. Startup Cities—with that stated, traditional municipalities in the Global South may never solve their infrastructure challenges. That’s where alternative governance can step in. One example is the rise of “startup cities,” such as the ones in Honduras and Nigeria that I’ve covered for Catalyst. Built with private financing and granted relative autonomy from host governments, they allow for experiments in city building. They surface as “charter cities,” “special economic zones,” and other pro-capitalist models. I’ve already begun chronicling them for my media company Market Urbanism Report, and will share findings here as well. 

Along with these 5 beats, I hope to give Catalyst readers a sense of the lifestyles and cultures in these cities—the things that really make them tick. Hopefully, you have as much fun reading about them as I have exploring and covering them.

Scott Beyer owns Market Urbanism Report and is currently on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South.