Cities have always played a central role in economic development by bringing workers and entrepreneurs together, spurring innovation, and sharing resources including infrastructure more efficiently. This should be good news for developing Asia: by 2050, there is projected to be 2.96 billion people living in the region’s towns and cities – 64% of all the entire population – up from 1.84 billion – or 46% of the population – in 2017.
Unfortunately, while the region’s cities are sure to grow in size, they may fail to fulfill their potential as engines of growth and job creation due to underinvestment in urban infrastructure, a lack of affordable housing, and unsynchronized spatial and economic planning.
What are policymakers to do?
First, they must achieve a more accurate and granular understanding of how their countries are urbanizing. New data sources are needed because official statistics often fail to capture the true urban footprint of cities since they rely on municipal boundaries drawn decades ago, for example. Satellite imagery, however, shows clearly that developing Asia’s cities are expanding without regard to those boundaries, forming what we call “natural cities”. Our study, Fostering Growth and Inclusion in Asia’s Cities tracked almost 1,460 natural cities across developing Asia, with many of them in the People’s Republic of China (680 natural cities), India (320), and Indonesia (93). Further, cities are merging to form integrated urban agglomerations; 476 natural cities that were separate in 1992 had linked up to form 124 city clusters by 2016, the largest being the Shanghai-centered city cluster, home to 91.5 million people, and encompassing a total of 53 natural cites, including Nanjing and Hangzhou, in the Yangtze River Delta area.
Urban expansion and formation of a city cluster in the Yangtze River Delta Area
This means urban planning cannot simply stop at the city limits. Efficient transport networks that extend from neighborhoods to workplaces prevent fragmentation of a city’s labor market.
Similarly, as cities cluster, decisions on where to place vital infrastructure, such as water treatment and solid waste facilities, transport hubs, green spaces, and industrial parks require coordinated decision-making among local government units. Unfortunately, companies operating in city clusters are now significantly more likely than those in stand-alone cities to complain about infrastructure and regulatory bottlenecks.
Second, policymakers must think of cities as labor markets. To be sure, cities are much more than places of work. However, they cannot thrive unless they function well for both enterprises and workers. This requires that travel within the city or city cluster is fast and cheap, that firms and households can easily relocate from one part of a city to another, and that real estate is affordable.
Asian cities need to do a lot on these fronts. Tests using Google Maps in 278 natural cities show considerable congestion during peak travel times in many large cities, such as Metro Manila, Dhaka, and Bengaluru. Moreover, in 199 of the cities a full quarter of the surveyed trips could not be made by public transport at all, while for the other three quarters, travel by public transport including walking to and from the transport hub was three times longer than by car.
This clearly shows that Asian cities must invest much more in efficient public transport if businesses are to attract workers and flourish. The transport system must combine trains, buses, taxis, ride sharing, and less formal services like jeepneys and autorickshaws—but regulating them well—to improve mobility.
Affordable homes are also critical to attract workers, keep them as their skills and families grow, and then allow them to easily shift to other jobs. However, our analysis showed that that home prices are well beyond the means of median-income households in more than 90% of cities. What is needed to tackle that is a combination of demand-side and supply-side policies, including reassessment of land use regulations that might be inadvertently restricting the supply of real estate.
Finally, growth requires vibrancy in all types of cities. Cities are connected to one another, and to the rural hinterland, through flows of goods, services, and people. Robust and balanced national economic growth depends also on mid-sized cities and even market towns that specialize in distributing agricultural produce.
This requires investment in efficient inter-city transport. Given competing demands on public funding, large cities should draw more on private sector funding. Such cities have an edge in attracting private investment because the agglomeration economies they generate promise high returns to those who choose to locate there. Allocations of public funds must follow the people. Many medium-sized cities in the region with populations of 1–5 million and some smaller cities with populations of half a million still attract migrants. Public investment should support that.
Asia’s steady urbanization represents an unprecedented chance for the region to ensure robust long-term growth and the creation of good jobs. Policymakers must not let the opportunity slip through their hands by neglecting their cities.
Global forum on cities highlights need for sustainable development
If cities like Delhi, Lagos, Sao Paolo and Tokyo seem populated today, think what they’ll be like by 2050. The United Nations predicts that by then, 2.5 billion more people will be living in urban centres, making two out of every three people city dwellers.
Cities are hubs for cultural, scientific and economic development, but they can also be stark reminders of the environmental and socio-economic challenges we face. Today, cities are responsible for some 70 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and consume 75 per cent of the world’s energy and resources. As the human population continues to grow and the planet faces unprecedented threats from climate change, there is a critical need for sustainable urban planning.
The tenth World Urban Forum (WUF)—the foremost international gathering on sustainable urbanization established by the United Nations—focused on the intersection of culture and innovation to address emerging urban challenges.
“Environment is a golden thread connecting culture and innovation, the theme of this year’s World Urban Forum,” said Martina Otto, head of the Cities Unit at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “Just as addressing climate change must become part of the conservation strategies for our heritage buildings, so must we find inspiration in traditions, be it traditional building techniques or urban form to build the cities of the future. Through innovation, we can create the pathways to make our cities zero carbon, resource efficient and resilient.”
A number of UNEP personnel attended the WUF to showcase ongoing work and projects. One example was the launch of what’s being called the world’s largest real-time air quality databank.
Another project featured was the Law and Climate Change toolkit.
UNEP and UN-Habitat have a longstanding cooperation in the area of sustainable urbanization, implemented through different projects—the latest being the Greener Cities Partnership. The joint mission reflects UN-Habitat’s take on compact, integrated and connected cities and UNEP’s work on cities as a force to achieve a decarbonizing and eco-decoupling economy.
Separately, UNEP supports cities across the world in addressing climate impacts and integrating the environment into their long-term urban planning through three priority areas: economy, nature-based adaptation, and climate and pollution action.
Given the resource surge linked to urban development, cities have a primary role in moving from a take-make-dispose economy to a circular model, where materials and products are kept in use for as long as possible at their highest value. Using their jurisdiction, cities can embed circularity principles into their planning decisions and policies.
Similarly, urban development and particularly sprawl are a driver for habitat loss, impacting the very ecosystems, city residents depend on. Nature-based solutions such as mangroves can be a cost-effective solution to dealing with floods and coastal erosion while also improving air quality.
It’s no secret that cities produce a lot of air and water pollution, both impacting their livability and the health of their citizens. By placing permits for industrial activities and construction, introducing low emission zones, switching to district energy and bettering water and wastewater management practices, cities can reduce their pollution output while also improving quality of life.
Designing Gender-Inclusive Cities that Work for All
Modern cities are designed BY MEN and FOR MEN, thereby limiting women’s access to economic and social development, according a new World Bank publication launched today at the World Urban Forum (WUF10).
The Handbook for Gender-Inclusive Urban Planning and Design makes the point that with women occupying just 10 percent of the highest-ranking jobs at the world’s leading architecture firms, cities have historically been planned and designed to reflect traditional gender roles and gendered division of labor. As a result, cities work better for men than they do for women.
“Men, women, gender minorities, and people of different abilities tend to use the public space in different ways,” stressed Sameh Wahba, World Bank Global Director for Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land. “We all have different needs and routines when it comes to our access to the city. However, if the city is built for the ‘neutral’ male user, it neglects the needs, interests, and routines of women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities in the city. This has enormous impacts on women’s access to jobs or schools, on their freedoms and safety, as well as their health and agency, and it reinforces gender inequalities.”
There are six issue areas in the built environment that combine with gender inequity to constrain, inconvenience, and even endanger women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities of all ages and abilities:
Access – using services and spaces in the public realm, free from constraints and barriers
Mobility – moving around the city safely, easily, and affordably
Safety and freedom from violence – being free from real and perceived danger in public and private spheres
Health and hygiene – leading an active lifestyle that is free from health risks in the built environment
Climate resilience – being able to prepare for, respond to, and cope with the immediate and long-term effects of disaster
Security of tenure – accessing and owning land and housing to live, work, and build wealth and agency
“Urban planning and design shape the environment around us – and that environment, in turn, shapes how we live, work, play, move, and rest,” said Maitreyi Das, Manager of the World Bank’s Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land Global Practice. “In general, cities work better for heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender men than they do for women, girls, sexual and gender minorities, and people with disabilities. Faced with challenges ranging from transportation services that prioritize commuting over caregiving, to the lack of lighting and toilets in public spaces, many women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities around the world feel inconvenienced, ill-at-ease, and unsafe in the urban environment.”
Although the World Bank and other institutions are firmly committed to advancing gender equality, oftentimes urban planners, project managers, and practitioners lack awareness of the importance of prioritizing gender in the urban design process, and do not have the specific, on-the-ground knowledge or tools to effectively implement gender-inclusive strategies.
To address this, the Handbook encourages gender-inclusive planning and design, which actively includes the voice of women, girls, and sexual and gender minorities. The publication seeks to fill the clear gap between policy and practice, intention and action, by showing why and how to incorporate gender inclusion into urban planning and design.
The Handbook sets out practical approaches, activities, and design guidelines that show how to do this – how to implement a participatory and inclusive design process that explores the experiences and uses of the city from the perspective of all citizen: women, men, and sexual and gender and other minorities.
It also gives clear, specific design guidelines, appropriate for and adaptable to all regions, for a range of planning fields, including housing, public transport and mobility infrastructure, other infrastructure services, and city master plans.
The Handbook is written for practitioners and planners who are looking for practicable tools and activities to engage people of all genders in design and planning. It focuses on both the process of planning and the final product: the project. The aim is to design cities that work for everyone.
The Handbook was co-authored by Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), a nonprofit community development and design firm that centers inclusive, participatory approaches.
Investing in Public Spaces to Achieve Livable Cities for All
Many cities around the world are missing out on significant development opportunities by ignoring, under-leveraging, or mismanaging public spaces. There is an enormous opportunity for smarter use of public spaces, to unlock the “hidden” value they create for communities, neighborhoods, and entire cities, according to a new World Bank publication launched today at the World Urban Forum (WUF10).
The publication, The Hidden Wealth of Cities: Creating, Financing, and Managing Public Spaces, says that well-conceived, people-centered urban public spaces have vast potential to become assets that cities can leverage to transform the quality of urban life and improve city functioning.
“Globally, about one-third of a city’s land area is covered by public spaces–ranging from city streets, neighborhood squares and parks, to public facilities, such as libraries and markets. This is significant,” said Sameh Wahba, World Bank Global Director for Urban, Disaster Risk Management, Resilience, and Land. “Sustainably planning, financing, and managing public spaces with a focus on people is key to unleashing cities’ potential for building livable, resilient, and competitive cities for all.”
According to the book, city governments often do not invest in the creation and management of good-quality public spaces due to poor and ad hoc urban planning, budgetary constraints, and other pressing priorities arising from rapid urbanization. As a result, public spaces often become liabilities, creating a downward spiral that drains public resources and exacerbates various city problems.
Jon Kher Kaw, World Bank Senior Urban Specialist and lead author of the publication, highlighted the other end of the spectrum, “Cities that successfully create and manage great public spaces and places buck this trend. They reap the rewards from the enormous value that is created, including the environmental and social benefits that go beyond economic gains.”
Kaw added that “Public spaces are especially good arenas for creativity and collaboration between governments, the private sector, and citizens for creating vibrant and inclusive neighborhoods and districts.”
The publication urges cities to adopt imaginative and effective strategies to create, finance, and manage public spaces, prioritizing their value for people, communities, and places. These strategies should focus on three major areas:
Stakeholders and partnerships: create public spaces for and with communities, and recognize the need for strong partnerships between governments, private sector actors, and citizens.
Policies, planning, and design: adopt effective planning policies, placemaking approaches, and innovative design solutions that ensure the equitable distribution, inclusion and access, and quality of public-space networks across the city.
Management, governance, and finance: implement sustainable financial, management, and governance models across the entire public-space asset life cycle, from their initial creation, implementation, maintenance and to their renewal.
The publication notes that it is through these strategies that public spaces–whether on the streets, within infrastructure spaces and public facilities, or in open and green areas–can yield returns on investment far exceeding the monetary costs.
Building on more than 20 city case studies from around the globe, the publication illustrates how successful public spaces help cities strengthen social cohesion and sense of place; promote urban health and citizen well-bring; build urban resilience; support the local economy and livelihoods; spur urban regeneration and entrepreneurship; and attract further investments into urban neighborhoods.
Download the publication to read the case studies and learn how city leaders, policymakers, and urban practitioners can better plan, finance, and manage both government- and privately-owned public spaces to achieve livable cities for all.
The Hidden Wealth of Cities: Creating, Financing, and Managing Public Spaces received support from UN-Habitat, European Space Agency (Earth Observation for Sustainable Development initiative), Centre for Liveable Cities (Singapore), Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements, and Korea Green Growth Trust Fund (KGGTF).
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