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livable cities

Building sustainable cities starts with smart urban design

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
The global conversation about urban sustainability focuses primarily on the big picture: how to reduce the carbon footprint and energy consumption of cities? How can we provide the infrastructure and services necessary to meet the needs of a soaring urban population? How can cities create enough jobs for everyone?
 
These issues are critically important, no doubt. But what about the city itself as a physical space? What should a sustainable city "look like"? Are there any big design principles that all successful urban planners should follow?
 
Because urbanization is often a chaotic process, many countries feel like they don't have the time or resources to address those questions. Yet evidence has shown that considerations about urban form and design are anything but cosmetic: creating vibrant public spaces within a city, for instance, can boost competitiveness, improve health outcomes, and strengthen social cohesion.
 
In this video, Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez and Jon Kher Kaw delve deeper into the linkages between urban spaces and sustainability, and describe the many benefits that come with a well-designed city.
 
If you want to learn more about this topic, we invite you to discover our latest Sustainable Communities podcast.
 
Related:

Of tigers and elephants: The rise of cities in Asia

Judy Baker's picture
Rush hour traffic in Mumbai, India. Photo: Adam Cohn/Flickr
Over the next decade and a half the world will add a staggering 1.1 billion people to its towns and cities. About one half of this urbanization will happen in the regions of East and South Asia.
 
If history is any guide, this growth in urban population will provide tremendous opportunities for increasing prosperity and livability. One can look at the successes of a few Asian cities such as Tokyo, Seoul, and Singapore to demonstrate how, with the assistance of good policies, urbanization and economic development go hand-in-hand. More generally, no major country has ever reached middle-income status without also experiencing substantial urbanization.
 
Yet cities can grow in different ways that will affect their competitiveness, livability, and sustainability. The more successful cities of Asia have been effective at creating opportunities, increasing productivity, fostering innovation, providing efficient and affordable services for residents, and enhancing public spaces to create vibrant and attractive places to live. But many, many, more cities have neglected fundamental investments in critical infrastructure and basic services, and have mismanaged land, environmental and social policies. This has resulted in traffic congestion, sprawl, slums, pollution, and crime.
 
Among the many complexities of urban development that have contributed to success, two critical factors stand out – investing in strategic urban planning, and in good urban governance.

Using green infrastructure to control urban floods: a win-win for cities

Zuzana Stanton-Geddes's picture
Photo: Eugene Phoen/Flickr
Photo: Eugene Phoen/Flickr

We have all come across people whose homes have beautiful and always blooming plants and flowers – people with a so-called “green thumb”.

But did you know that cities too can have a “green thumb”? Singapore is certainly one of those cities. 

Also known as the "garden city”, Singapore is set to become a "city in a garden”. The abundance of greenery is a striking feature, with parks, green roofs, street side plants, and trees on every corner.

But greenery is not there just to please the eye and create livable public areas — it also helps mitigate the risk of flooding.


Singapore, like many other densely-populated cities, is at risk of flooding. One way to tackle this is by greening public spaces and encouraging private development to follow the principles of the government’s flagship “ABC” program, which looks to make water “Active, Beautiful and Clean”. Carefully planned and implemented, investments in so-called “green infrastructure” are paying off: they make the city more resilient and more sustainable in the long-term, and also create more spaces for people to meet and interact.

Although Singapore’s dedication to greening public spaces is remarkable, it is not the only city that is getting its hands “dirty” to promote natural ecosystems. The Netherlands has been promoting green approaches in urban planning for many years now, with the innovative redesign of sewer systems, or the creation of multi-functional “water squares” which can hold storm water when rain is heavy while otherwise serving as a social space.

Can Singapore inspire Laos to build water-smart cities?

Henrike Brecht's picture
Photo: Songquan Deng/Flickr
Photo: Songquan Deng/Flickr
Singapore: the beautiful city state, famed for its lush gardens, splendid food, culturally diverse communities, and the cocktail Singapore Sling. I was there last week for the World Bank’s 2016 Urban Week. The event brought together leading city officials from all over the world and staff from international organizations. It was an excellent exchange on how to tackle urban planning in a sustainable and integrated way. One lesson that emerged from the gathering is that cities that are resilient to natural disasters are also more economically competitive. Singapore is itself a prime example of a city that has understood the importance of connecting disaster risk management, urban planning, and quality living.

What can Chinese cities learn from Singapore?

Wanli Fang's picture
One of Singapore’s latest redevelopment projects included the construction of a freshwater reservoir. Photo: 10 FACE/Shutterstock

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Singapore Urban Week along with other colleagues from the World Bank Beijing office, as well as delegates from China’s national government and participating cities. For all of us, this trip to Singapore was an eye-opening experience that highlighted the essential role of integrated urban planning in building sustainable cities, and provided practical solutions that can be readily adapted to help achieve each city’s own development vision. A couple of key lessons learned:

Putting people at the center of development strategies

This is only possible when planners always keep in mind people’s daily experience of urban space and invite them as part of decision-making process through citizen engagement.

For instance, in many cities, public transit has been perceived as a low-end, unattractive option of travel, causing ridership to stagnate despite severe traffic congestion. But in Singapore, public transit accounts for 2/3 of the total travel modal share in 2014. Moving around the city by metro is comfortable and efficient because transfers between different modes and lines are easy, with clear signage of directions, air-conditioned connecting corridors, and considerate spatial designs and facilities for the elderly and physically-challenged users. In addition, metro stations are co-located with major retail and commercial activities and other urban amenities, significantly reducing last-mile connectivity issues.

Seize the space! Reclaiming streets for people

Verónica Raffo's picture

Increasing numbers of citizens all over the world are demanding that urban planners and political authorities in their cities “get it right” when designing public urban spaces. People living in cities, both in developed and developing countries are reclaiming streets as public spaces, demanding urban planners to re-design streets to ensure a more equitable distribution of these public spaces, and prioritizing the allocation of streets for people to walk, cycle and socialize. This was the central topic discussed last week at the “Future of Places” conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
 
How do we contribute to a more equitable society by building more equitable cities?  In an increasingly urbanized world, urban mobility is central to citizens’ social and economic wellbeing. However, current urban transportation systems – based primarily on the movement of private motorized vehicles – have prioritized road space and operational design of streets for automobiles over other modes of transport, which has caused many social, environmental and economic consequences, therefore reducing urban livability and equitable access.
 
The values of urbanity and mobility are being rethought all over the world, and Latin American cities are no exception to this questioning of how cities are to be developed today. One of the answers to sustainability issues lies in the concept of proximity, which combines different dimensions of the urban proposals that the 21st century requires. These dimensions include public health – particularly the fight against sedentary habits – as well as density, compactness, closeness, resilience, and livability of the public space. These all point to a new urban paradigm that all creative cities wish to adopt in order to attract the knowledge economy and guarantee social cohesion.

Cities’ Elusive Quest for a Post-Industrial Future

Stefano Negri's picture



What do rusting industrial cities have in common with outmoded BlackBerries? In this era of constant technological progress, talent mobility and global competition, it's striking how many similarities can be drawn between cities and companies, and the need for both to continuously adjust their industrial strategies to avoid oblivion or bankruptcy.

Cities can lose their vigor and vitality just as surely as a once-hot product can lose its cutting-edge cool. RIM, the maker of the the once-ubiquitous BackBerry,
has been leapfrogged by companies with more nimble technologies; Kodak, once synonymous with photography, went bankrupt when it failed to make the transition
from film to digital. The roll call of withering cities – once proud, yet now reduced to rusting remnants – shows how cities, like companies, can lose their historic raison d’etre if they fail to hone their competitive edge.

Heavy industries like steelmaking and automobile assembly once powered some of the world’s mightiest economic urban areas: Traditional manufacturing industries shaped their identity, giving their citizens income and pride. But globalization, competition, shifting trade patterns and changing consumer trends are continuously reshaping the competitive landscape, with dramatic impact on cities and people. Over the past century, industrialized regions like the Ruhr Valley of Germany, the Midlands of Great Britain and the north of France – along with the older shipbuilding cities around the Baltic and North Seas, and the mono-industrial cities of the former Soviet Union – have struggled to make the transition to different industries or toward a post-industrial identity. Their elusive quest for a post-industrial future has had a dramatic impact on their citizens.

The same issue has become daunting in recent decades for aging manufacturing regions in the United States, which have suffered the prolonged erosion of their industrial-era vibrancy. That kind of wrenching change is bound to soon confront other cities in the developing world, as they struggle to adapt their urban cores, civic infrastructure and industrial strategies to an era that puts a higher premium on nimble cognitive skills and advanced technologies than on bricks-and-mortar factories, blast furnaces and big-muscle brawn.

For fast-growing cities in the global South, many of which are urgently seeking solutions amid their sudden urban growth, there could be many lessons in the experience of older cities in the developed world in making such a transition.

A series of recent conferences among urban policymakers and practitioners – backed by a wide range of rigorous academic research and practical client-focused experience in building competitiveness – provide insights that city leaders and the World Bank Group’s practitioners can leverage as they craft programs for transformative urban strategies. 

Cities on the Move

Megha Mukim's picture

Thoughts on urban growth from Kiel to Nairobi

I’m writing at the end of a long, dusty mission, after numerous plane, train and car journeys. In fact, 1/7th of my time has been spent on being transported from one city to the next; this gave me plenty of time to marvel at the diversity in city structures.

The first stop was Kiel, Germany, where I spent a few hurried days with academics, government officials, private companies and journalists, discussing solutions for pressing problems in trade and clusters and their impact on poverty and inequality. A city of around 280,000 residents, Kiel is small, about as dense as Dublin, and well-linked with the rest of Germany and Europe. It is one of multiple core-municipalities that form a system of cities around Hamburg along with Lübeck, Bremen etc. The train from the airport was relatively painless, and travel within Kiel (to shop for fresh bread and herring) consisted mostly of short walks.