Image Credit: Scott Beyer

The Difference Between First and Third World Urbanism

Third World cities are less planned, more chaotic. But that’s not inherently bad.

September 11, 2023

“Order versus chaos”, as Jordan Peterson writes, is the yin and yang of life. Order is inherently needed because it brings stability, but if used to excess can be repressive and fixed. Chaos is the scary leap into the unknown, and can have disastrous consequences but also spark creativity and growth.

“To straddle that fundamental duality,” Peterson writes in 12 Rules For Life, “is to be balanced.”

I’ve thought a lot about how this chasm applies to cities as I continue my 1.5-year tour through the Global South. The extremes really jump out when comparing the order of 1st World cities with the chaos of 3rd World ones. 

Following six months in Africa, I detoured to Tel Aviv, Israel to begin my upcoming 6 months in Asia. Tel Aviv is an extremely clean, nice, well-ordered city that counters almost all of what I saw in Africa. 

It was founded in 1909, built as a suburb of the ancient port city Jaffa. Most of Tel Aviv’s inhabitants were middle-class Jews from Europe who wanted to recreate a European city in Israel. In 1925, Scottish planner Patrick Geddes drew a master plan for Tel Aviv, basing it on a “garden city” movement that sought to combine the best parts of city and town living. Geddes planned green spaces and big residential blocks with internal gardens. 

In the 1930s, waves of Jews escaping persecution came to Israel. Tel Aviv grew rapidly, eventually merging with Jaffa and surrounding towns. It has since become a modern megacity and global destination, and in that same spirit, a monument to the careful planning that is expected from such First World hubs. 

This begins with the housing stock. It is highly-regulated in Tel Aviv, with 90% of Israeli land state-owned. The government does not release enough land for new construction to meet its own housing goals, causing an inelastic market. Existing buildings, many of them preserved to fit the city’s famed Bauhaus architectural style, are secure, well-standardized, properly situated, and subject to oversight – but also expensive. Housing costs across Israel doubled in the past decade, and in Tel Aviv, unrenovated 4-bedroom flats list for well over $1 million.  According to the World Economic Forum, Tel Aviv is the world’s 3rd most expensive city, after Singapore and New York.

The situation in African cities is way different. Informal housing is the norm, with homes built from various materials densely packed into illegal settlements. This is the result of lower incomes and living standards, but also less bureaucracy.  While zoning laws may technically exist, they are rarely enforced.  

In such settlements one finds homes that are tilted, slapped together, and lacking basic utilities. But they rent for between $5-50 per month, housing a population that cannot afford anything nicer. 

Transportation is another area of divergence. Tel Aviv is one of the world’s most congested cities and doesn’t have much public transit, with a bus system, some intercity trains, but no subway. A light rail system is being built with a target launch date of this year. Most mass transit stops running during Shabbat, which leads people to rely more on private vehicles.  

African cities also lack public transit. But private car ownership is quite low, helping foster a vibrant market of frequent, ubiquitous private transit. Owner operators (sometimes organized in business associations or cartels, sometimes not) roam the streets in a variety of vehicles, from the matatus of Nairobi to the mototaxis of Kigali. There is limited regulation; instead these decentralized systems cater to market demand, built upon a spontaneity that would be alien to First World systems, with their fixed processes and their infrastructure that takes decades to build.

But the most quintessential difference between First and Third World cities is the streets themselves – how right-of-way is regulated (or not regulated). 

Tel Aviv’s a walkable city, with famous tree-lined boulevards that are perfect for pedestrians. But lots of Third World cities make Tel Aviv look car-dependent by comparison, and it’s telling that they have far more people actually walking around than in Tel Aviv.

This is partly because, like most First World cities, Tel Aviv has strict traffic rules. Every usage must stay in its place. Bicyclists cannot ride on sidewalks but must stay in bike lanes or be fined. Buses have designated lanes. Even pedestrians can be fined for walking outside of approved areas. While cars use the majority of space, there is almost no room for street commerce – instead retail is confined to expensive brick-and-mortar stores.

Right-of-way in African cities is a total free-for-all. Pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, private cars, and buses mix together. This was once the case in U.S. cities, but as automobile traffic increased, the situation became untenable. Today, advocates for pedestrian and bike safety call for traffic calming measures and altered right-of-way. But in Africa, this isn’t necessary, because drivers anticipate working around pedestrians, unlike in America where roads became car dominant thanks to engineering choices. It’s a very different social contract, premised around sharing space.

Right-of-way is also more easily used in the Third World. Sidewalk and street commerce is commonplace. Throughout Africa, I saw everything from a beach squatter selling fitness lessons on the Dar Es Salaam bayfront, to a woman selling sweet potatoes from a Lagos gas station pump, and every imaginable commerce in-between. This is how Third Worlders get day-to-day staples, as opposed to grocery stores.


Israel, like most of the First World, more strictly adheres to the principle of rule of law. That’s what gives them a functioning government in a region known for political instability. In the Third World, the rule of law is less commonplace, and this results in instability and authoritarian overreach. 

Yet in day-to-day life, the lack of formalization has benefits, too. Third Worlders can more easily establish their own businesses, build homes and get around without government interference. It enables a more spontaneous and, thus, livelier urban form that lowers costs and responds dynamically to people’s needs.

End of the day, neither the “ordered” urbanism of the developed world nor the “chaotic” brand within the developing world is perfect. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and could inform one another.

All images credited to Scott Beyer.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine,, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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