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Urban Development

Olympic-sized ambition: Halt the Games' economic excess by building a permanent site for the Olympics — in Greece, their historic home

Christopher Colford's picture

Build it well, build it wisely, and build it only once — How investing to create a permanent site for the Olympic Games, ideally in their historic home of Greece, could reduce waste, deliver economic stimulus, and avoid "white elephant" monuments to extravagance.

The jeering of angry taxpayers and frustrated favela-dwellers may drown out some of the cheering of sports enthusiasts this weekend, as the 2016 Olympic Games begin in Rio de Janeiro. The government of Brazil and local officials in Rio have certainly done their best to stage the Games successfully, addressing a range of challenges that include the Zika virus outbreak, the doping scandal among athletes and the country’s prolonged economic slump and political traumas. Yet an enduring scandal in international finance — the chronic design flaw in the way that the Games are planned for and paid for — has again imposed an enormous economic burden on the Olympic host city. Struggling economies can ill afford the extravagance of repeatedly building use-once-throw-away sports facilities.

It was surely startling to see the deep degree of scorn and sarcasm with which many workaday Brazilians, who are now enduring a deep economic downturn, hurled derision at the arrival of the Olympic torch in Rio this week. They evidently saw that Olympic arrival ceremony as a symbol, not just of athletic ambition, but of financial folly.

The anxieties that Brazil has endured on the road to Rio 2016 should underscore a longer-term, Olympic-sized concern: Mismanagement by the Games' promoters has now been thoroughly documented, underscoring the abusive way that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the global sports-industrial complex have habitually foisted reckless costs on the taxpayers of hapless host cities.

By goading Olympic-wannabe cities to make ever-more-extravagant financial commitments – stoking their dreams of a media moment of purchased publicity – the mega-event industry has helped shatter the finances of one host city after another. No wonder that so many cities are now shunning the IOC’s bidding process, dreading the deadweight losses that are almost certain to burden any Olympic host.

Welcome as the IOC’s recent “Olympic Agenda 2020” reform proposals may be, it’s long past time to rein in the financial excesses of mega-event promoters. With a claque of financiers and flacks who are ready to manipulate the gullibility of the would-be hosts, the Olympic spirit has fallen victim to the self-interest of construction firms, property developers and publicists who seek to profit from host cities’ overspending.

An invaluable book documenting this Olympic-scale threat – discussed in detail at a World Bank’s InfoShop book-and-author seminar in June 2015 – should be top-of-mind for Olympics-watchers this week, as Rio de Janeiro enjoys its moment in the spotlight. “Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup” — by Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College — can help other cities avoid an impulsive rush for momentary Olympic notoriety. A video of Zimbalist’s InfoShop presentation is archived at,,contentMDK:20289125~pagePK:162350~piPK:165575~theSitePK:225714,00.html 

Will forcibly displaced Syrians get their land back?

Paul Prettitore's picture

 ART production /

With half the population of Syria forced from their homes as a result of the five-year-long civil war, now living either as refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs), many are asking, “Will we be able to return to our original homes?” Recent changes to the legal framework in Syria governing the sale and purchase of private land raise concerns—both for the protection of land owned or long-occupied by displaced persons and for the development of any post-conflict land restitution process. Such regulations may also compound post-conflict reform of land administration practices and bring uncertainty to one of the few economic assets of displaced households.

The jobs challenges of urbanization in India and Pakistan

Michael Kugelman's picture
Michael Kugelman, guest blogger, is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
A busy train station in Mumbai, India. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

India and Pakistan are urbanizing at remarkably rapid rates. India’s urban population has increased from less than 20 percent of its overall population in 1951 to more than 30 percent today. In Pakistan, the share of the urban population—well under 20 percent in the 1960s, is more than a third today.

Housing is at the center of the sustainable development agenda

Aisa Kirabo Kacyira's picture
UN Habitat - Cover image from Housing at the Centre report

Clearly, a lot of what has gone wrong with cities is related in one way or another to housing. The future of urbanization will therefore depend on how countries and cities position housing as a priority in the public debate around sustainable development.

From slums to gated communities, from overcrowding to sprawl, from homelessness to the vacant houses, there is much evidence that housing is shaping cities worldwide, regretfully, in many cases, by producing fragmentation and inequalities. The resulting models are leading to social, environmental and financial costs far beyond what the majority of cities can afford.

UN-HABITAT: Housing at the Centre of the New Urban AgendaWhile the most common problem is the shortage of adequate and affordable housing and the unprecedented proliferation of slums, other important challenges lay in the poor quality and location of the stock usually far from job and livelihood opportunities, lack of accessibility and services. The housing challenge the world is facing today is likely to persist with six out of every ten people expected to reside in urban areas by 2030. Over 90 per cent of this growth will take place in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. It is estimated that the struggle to obtain adequate and affordable housing could affect at least 1.6 billion people globally within a decade.

We cannot overlook this reality. This is why, towards Habitat III, UN-Habitat has increased efforts to re-establish housing as a priority in the debate around sustainable urbanization. We are proposing the 'Housing at the Centre' approach to shift the focus from simply building houses to a holistic framework where housing is orchestrated with national and urban development in a way that benefits all people.

World Cities Summit – A festival of ideas for an urban world

Abhas Jha's picture
Photo courtesy of Michaela Lohelt through a Creative Commons license.
Photo courtesy of Michaela Loheit through a Creative Commons license.
Here is a pop quiz – where in the world, over the course of five days, can you talk to the architects of the remarkable turnaround of the city of Medellin, have a conversation with over 100 mayors and city leaders from across the world on the future of cities, and have access to literally hundreds of companies operating at the cutting edge of urban technologies in areas like desalination, solid waste management, and urban analytics? If you answered the World Cities Summit in Singapore next week, you would be right.
The Summit is a biannual event that is one of the premier showcases of the state of urban development around the world. The fact that it is being hosted by Singapore – a city-state that epitomizes livability, inclusion and sustainability – is particularly fitting. The World Bank’s Infrastructure and Urban Development Hub team is proud to partner with the Center for Livable Cities in participating in several events during the World Cities Summit, such as the Mayors Forum, an ADB learning event on Cities and Middle Income Countries, and thematic sessions on culture, municipal finance, and innovation. One of the benefits of large global events such as the World Cities Summit is the opportunity to meet city leaders, counterparts, partner agencies, and colleagues from across the world to discuss ways and means on how the World Bank Group can continue to support them in their development objectives.

Five reasons cities should take a leading role on food waste

John Morton's picture
Reported figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on food loss and food waste highlight its importance to the global environment. Food loss and waste annually contribute 3.3 gigagrams of CO2 equivalent, or over twice the total emissions of India; waste 250 cubic kilometers of water which is equivalent to 100 million Olympic-sized swimming pools; and 1.4 billion hectares of agricultural land, an area larger than China. Considering that, if only 1/4 of the food lost or wasted across the globe could be recovered, it could feed 750 million people, it is also shocking when presented in the context of global food insecurity and hunger.
These statistics highlight the need to address the problem as global citizens. But if you look at it closer, the incentives for action are indeed very local, making cities—as the centers of consumption in the world—important game changers with strong reasons to take action.

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

More people in less space: rapid urbanisation threatens global health
The Guardian

The global population looks set to rise to 9.7 billion people by 2050, when it is expected that more than two-thirds of humanity will be living in urban areas. The global health community is bracing itself. Compared to a more traditional rural existence, the shift in lifestyle and inevitable increase in exposure to pollution will lead to significant long-term rises in non-communicable diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Worrying as this prospect may be, current population trends are already altering the global health landscape even faster than we realise, and that could pose far bigger and more immediate problems. When population growth is combined with other pressures, such as climate change and human migration, some parts of the world are likely to experience unprecedented levels of urban density.

How Being Stateless Makes You Poor
Foreign Policy
For the first 24 years of his life, third-generation Palestinian refugee Waseem Khrtabeel rarely noticed any difference between himself and his Syrian neighbors. Like his parents, Khrtabeel was born and raised in Damascus. He speaks with a distinct Syrian accent, just like that of his many Syrian friends. But Khrtabeel is not like other Syrians. He’s stateless.The first time Khrtabeel, 30, grasped the magnitude of that word was in early 2010, after graduating from Damascus University with a mechanical engineering degree. Khrtabeel was elated when he secured an interview with the Saudi Binladin Group, one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent construction companies. On an unseasonably warm day in January, he arrived at the company’s recruiting office in southwestern Damascus promptly at 2 p.m., energized and confident. He was shown the door less than seven minutes later.

Fecal sludge management is the elephant in the room, but we have developed tools to help

Peter Hawkins's picture

Recently developed Fecal Sludge Management tools to help address this important, but often-ignored, urban sanitation issue.

A global challenge

In the rapidly expanding cities of the developing world, sanitation is of ever growing importance – more people mean more exposure to fecal pollution, and therefore a greater risk to public health.  The widely accepted solution, taught to sanitary engineers worldwide, is to flush human waste into sewers which take it to large, centralized treatment facilities. 

This requires expensive infrastructure, a plentiful water supply, skilled operators and a substantial and reliable stream of operating funds. This means that in most low- and middle-income country cities, the sewerage service is only available to a small and decreasing proportion of the population, as investments cannot keep up with the explosive urban growth.

Eight stubborn facts about housing policies

Luis Triveno's picture
A low-income residential neighborhood in Mumbai, India. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank
As John Adams famously warned, “facts are stubborn things” that we cannot wish away. Governments in the developing world are finally facing up to the increasing need for affordable housing: today 1.2 billion people live in substandard housing; by 2030, 3 billion will need new housing. While challenges may vary by country, I believe there are at least eight “stubborn facts” about housing policy that should not be ignored.

How a parking project in Bhutan contributes to Gross National Happiness

Adele Paris's picture
Photo by Flickr user Khaled Monsoor

In Bhutan, the only country that measures success on a scale of Gross National Happiness (GNH), government officials actively research ways to make residents’ lives happier. So when it became apparent that the growing number of vehicles in Thimphu, the capital city, was increasing traffic congestion and causing intense frustration among locals, the authorities started looking for a solution to restore contentment among its citizens.