Human settlements define people’s existence. They are places – large and small, urban and rural, formal and informal – where people live, learn, work, and create. Opportunities for employment, education, and access to health care are some of the principal factors that attract people to urban settlements. The urbanization process has resulted in more urban settlements with larger populations and the dramatic expansion of existing urban centres.
Population dynamics, urbanization, migration and the need for reliable transport systems are the key pressures affecting our human settlements. These forces shape settlements and have a bearing on the state of the environment. As places where people live and work, human settlements are also assessed in terms of their livability; focusing on their current state of amenities (health services, education, community facilities), employment, shelter, service provision (water, sanitation and waste collection and disposal) and heritage.
Human settlements, in turn, require large quantities of energy, water and land to sustain their activities, and produce a range of wastes, thus displaying ever-growing ecological footprints.
Close to 58% of the population in South Africa is urbanized, up from 53% in 1996. This is much higher than the average for sub-Saharan Africa, which stands at 34%.
As with the rest of the developing world, this rapid urban growth has placed significant pressure on the natural and human systems that underpin and maintain settlements. Although our larger urban settlements occupy less than 2% of the nation’s land area, they exert a considerable influence on the natural environments outside their own boundaries.
Settlements influence the natural environment; they also involve the exploitation of both biological and non-biological resources, generating pollution and waste that has to return to the environment.
The nature and extent of the impact is determined by the scale of a settlement, the level of infrastructural development, the rate of resource consumption, and the types of human and economic activity. A deteriorating environment poses potential threats (such as public health and flooding) to settlements and their residents.