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Urban Development

The challenge of affordable housing for low-income city-dwellers

Zaigham M. Rizvi's picture

Housing is a numbers game: The more people there are in any city or town, the greater the need is for housing. The number of people living on the planet is rising every second, as the
World Population Clock shows, while the amount of habitable land (what housing specialists call “serviced land”) remains limited.

It is critical that additional affordable, decent dwellings be developed, as today’s world population of about 7.38 billion (increasing by more than 80 million per year, at the current population growth rate of about 1.13 percent per annum) approaches about 9 billion by 2030 and a projected 11 billion by 2050.

Urbanization intensifies the need for city-focused housing: By 2030, nearly two-thirds of the world’s population will be urban – and, even more daunting, nearly half of that urban population will be living in poverty, in substandard housing or in slums. The challenge of providing affordable housing for low-income city-dwellers is universal, with intensifying urban congestion making it an urgent priority in Asia and Africa.

‘Smartest Places’ via smarter strategies: Sharpening competitiveness requires ingenuity, not inertia

Christopher Colford's picture

Seeking an antidote to the gloom-and-doom bombast of this election year? Try a dose of optimism about urban“hotspot hustle and cutting-edge cool” – with a book that champions smart public policy, delivered through a shrewd approach to Competitiveness Strategy.

Gazing into the rear-view mirror is a mighty reckless way to try to drive an economy forward. Yet backward-looking nostalgia for a supposedly safer economic past – with voters' anxiety being stoked by snide sloganeering about “taking back our sovereignty” and “making the country great again” – has infected the policy debate throughout this dispiriting election year, in many of the world’s advanced economies. Scapegoating globalization and inflaming fears of job losses and wage stagnation, populists have harangued all too many voters into a state of passivity, lamenting the loss of a long-ago era (if ever it actually existed) when inward-looking economies were, allegedly, insulated from global competition.

Optimism has been in short supply lately, but an energetic new book – co-authored by a prominent World Bank Group alumnus – offers a hopeful perspective on how imaginative economies can become pacesetters in the fast-forward Knowledge Economy. Advanced industries are thriving and productivity is strengthening, argue Antoine Van Agtmael and Fred Bakker, now that many once-declining manufacturing regions have reinvented their industries and reawakened their entrepreneurial energies.

Welcome to the brainbelt,” declares “The Smartest Places On Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation” (published by Public Affairs books). Now that brainpower has replaced muscle-power as the basis of prosperity in an ever-more-competitive global economy, the key factor for success is "the sharing of knowledge." Longlisted for the Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, “Smartest Places” is receiving well-deserved attention among corporate leaders and financial strategists – and it ought to be required reading for every would-be policymaker.

The era of “making things smart” has replaced the era of “making things cheap” – meaning that industries no longer face a “race to the bottom” of competing on costs but a “race to the top” of competing on creativity. Knowledge-intensive industries, and the innovation ecosystems that generate them, create the “Smartest Places” that combine hotspot hustle and cutting-edge cool.

Those optimistic themes may sound unusual to election-year audiences in struggling regions, which are easy prey for demagogues manipulating populist fears. Yet those ideas are certainly familiar to readers at the World Bank Group, where teams working on innovation, entrepreneurship and competitiveness have long helped their clients shape innovation ecosystems through well-targeted policy interventions that strengthen growth and job creation.

“Smartest Places,” it strikes me, reads like an evidence-filled validation of the Bank Group’s recent research on “Competitive Cities for Jobs and Growth.” That report, published last year, offers policymakers (especially at the city and metropolitan levels) an array of practical and proven steps that can help jump-start job creation by spurring productivity growth.

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 

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.

Competitive Cities: Changsha, China – coordination, competition, construction and cars

Z. Joe Kulenovic's picture

Cites are the heartbeat of the global economy. More than half the world’s population now resides in metropolitan areas, making a disproportionate contribution to their respective countries’ prosperity. The opportunities and challenges associated with urbanization are quite evident in the world’s most populous country, whose cities are among the largest and most dynamic on Earth. To better understand what a thriving metropolitan economy looks like in the Chinese context, our Competitive Cities team selected Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, for inclusion among our six case studies of economically successful cities, as the representative of the East Asia Pacific Region.  
As recently as the turn of the millennium, Changsha’s economy was still dominated by low-value-added, non-tradable services (e.g. restaurants and hair salons) – an economic structure commonly seen today in many low- to lower-middle-income cities. Since then, Changsha has achieved consistently high, double-digit annual growth in output and employment, despite its landlocked location and few natural or inherited advantages, such as proximity to trade routes or mineral wealth. With per capita GDP surging from US $3,500 in 2000 to more than US $15,000 in 2012, Changsha has accomplished a feat so many other World Bank clients can only dream of: leapfrogging from lower-middle-income to high-income status in barely a decade, and an economy now comprised of much more sophisticated, capital-intensive industries. 


Photos via Google Maps

We took a closer look at the success factors behind this city’s dramatic growth story, and what lessons its experience may hold for cities elsewhere, especially in terms of (1) how to overcome coordination failures and bureaucrats working in silos and (2) how to ensure a level playing field for all firms in the city (that is to say, competition neutrality), even in industries with a strong SOE presence – something still not commonly seen in China these days.
Changsha’s (and Hunan’s) growth has clearly benefitted from a highly conducive national macroeconomic and policy framework, including a plan entitled The Rise of Central China, aimed at spurring development in areas beyond the country’s booming coastal regions. This and other initiatives provided for the removal of investment restrictions, more favorable tax treatment, and enhanced infrastructure and connectivity to coastal commercial gateways. China’s massive stimulus plan in 2009 (in response to the global financial crisis and recession) jump-started construction activity in the country, providing further impetus to one of Changsha’s principal industries, construction machinery and equipment manufacturing. And national government interventions in earlier decades – especially the establishment of dedicated research institutes – provided a critical contribution to Changsha’s accumulation of expertise in such disciplines as machinery or metallurgy.
Notwithstanding these national initiatives, responsibility for local economic development in China is highly decentralized, with municipal government leaders directly tasked with achieving GDP growth and tax revenue targets. Municipal governments also have rights over almost all land in cities, which can be leased or used as collateral to fund local infrastructure. In Changsha, municipal authorities used these prerogatives to improve their city’s economic competitiveness.

Effective city competitiveness: 10 lessons learned in the Philippines

Hans Shrader's picture

Maybe it's just easier to think that the keys to economic growth lie at the national level of governance – where monetary and fiscal policies, national law and development strategies are conceived and debated. Certainly national policy is important, but it is rarely where entrepreneurs have their first experience interacting with law and policy.

The city is where people’s ideas create business, where people work and where the bustle of the economy comes alive. The city is where an entrepreneur will first interact with systems that are ostensibly created to attract and support business investment and growth.

Cities can and do engage in reforms to help improve their economic competitiveness. Often this includes the identification of a business sector deemed competitive and some strategy on how to do it better. Improved competitiveness also can include investment in more efficient transportation systems, better access to utilities and services, improved tax policies, better zoning, infrastructure investment and investment in skilled labor. While working on these complex policy and investment opportunities is rational, it often takes time to do the analysis necessary to identify the best opportunities – and it takes much longer to actually see the rewards. 

Fortunately, there is a reform that cities can do almost immeduiately, and at low cost, to help support business development and improve the business environment: business entry simplification. 

The Philippine Experience & Lessons Learned

In decentralized economies like the Philippines, cities play an important role in business registration. In fact, almost of one-third of the country’s business registration steps fall under the responsibility of city-level leadership.

In working with Philippine cities to reform dated, cumbersome, and confusing business registration requirements, a World Bank Group team was able to help its clients reduce registration steps from an average of 41 to just three. Cities also saw an average spike in new business registration of around 20 percent in the first year after the implementation of reform.

Play the 'Competitive Cities' game: See whether you're a guru of urban competitiveness

Juni Tingting Zhu's picture

To start the new year, I've designed a 10-question game to recap some of the major findings of our flagship report, “Competitive Cities for Jobs and Growth: What, Who and How.”

The report, which was launched at at a World Bank conference in Washington on December 10, 2015, has been gaining wide recognition in the news media. Positive coverage has included analyses in Citylab (edited by urbanologist Richard Florida) and in Citiscope (edited by urbanologist Neal Peirce), as well as an essay in The Huffington Post by Marcelo Giugale, senior economic advisor in the World Bank Group's practice group on Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions (EFI).

This short 3-minute game features many of the central themes of the Competitive Cities initiative.  Please click on  this link – – to start the game.

For more information about the Competitive Cities initiative at the World Bank, please visit:  

What’s next for the Competitive Cities initiative: 'To travel far, let's travel together'

Ceci Sager's picture

“I wish that I had had this [report] when I started. . . . It has some great things that we found out over a long period time 
–  in many cases, through trial and error. And so, when I read it, I said, 'Wow, we are doing these things, but it did take us awhile to buy into these things.' It is going to be very informative to cities around the worlld.” 
– Tracey A. Nichols, Director of Economic Development, City of Cleveland

The World Bank Group launched the Competitive Cities report on December 10 – “Competitive Cities for Jobs and Growth: What, Who and How,” which represents almost two years of research and analysis to put together a reliable, comprehensive and unified body of work. It is aimed primarily to help cities formulate and implement economic development strategies, and it is intended to be used by city leaders  themselves.
The report was launched jointly by the senior directors of two Global Practices at the Bank Group: the Trade and Competitiveness and the Social, Urban, Rural and Resilience practices. The roundtable discussion included academics, policymakers, senior World Bank advisors, and representatives from the private sector. The Bank Group's stately Old Board Room was filled to overflowing, and the audience was particularly appreciative of the video animation summarizing the central ideas within the Competitive Cities report. The twitter feed associated with the event (#competitivecities) was inundated with live tweets. Supportive analyses in the news media – for instance, in the Huffington Post by Marcelo Giugale and at CityLab by Richard Florida – focused supportive news coverage on the event.

The launch of the report is much more than a flash in the pan. The report itself is only the start: What follows is the rollout, the active dissemination to regional task teams and city leaders, and the setting-in-motion of the findings of the report, which focuses on sub-national growth and job creation. These are some of the events we have planned:

  • Events in the various World Bank Group regions, to share the general framework and also to customize the findings of relevance to each specific region.  So far, we are considering events in Singapore, Sydney, Dar Es Salaam and potentially cities in the Middle East, North and West Africa, and in the Caribbean. If your city is interested in hosting a regional event, we would be pleased to hear from you.
  • A three-day interactive executive training course on competitive cities, which is aimed at city mayors and economic development advisors to cities.
  • An operational guide to help configure competitive cities into World Bank lending projects and advisory services, including deep dives for regional and country task teams. Let us know if you’re particularly interested in hosting such a training session in your region.

Competitive Cities: Bucaramanga, Colombia – An Andean Achiever

Z. Joe Kulenovic's picture

Modern business facilities, tourist attractions, and an expanding skyline: Bucaramanga, Colombia. 

When the World Bank’s Competitive Cities team set out to analyze what some of the world’s most successful cities have done to spur economic growth and job creation, the first one we visited was Bucaramanga, capital of Colombia’s Santander Department. Nestled in the country’s rugged Eastern Cordillera, landlocked and without railroad links, this metropolitan area of just over 1 million people has consistently had one of Latin America’s best-performing economies. Bucaramanga, with Colombia’s lowest unemployment rate and with per capita income at 170 percent of the national average, is on the threshold of attaining high-income status as defined by the World Bank.  

Bucaramanga and its surrounding region are rife with contrasts. On the one hand, it has a relatively less export-intensive economy and higher rates of informal business establishments and workers than Colombia as a whole. Indeed, informality has often been cited as a key constraint to firms’ ability to access support programs and to scale up. On the other, Santander’s rates of poverty and income inequality, and its gender gap in labor-force participation, are all better than the national average, and it has consistently led the country on a number of measures of economic growth, including aggregate output, job creation and consumption.   
But the numbers tell only part of the story. A qualitative transformation of Bucaramanga’s economy is under way. Once dominated by lower-value-added industries like clothing, footwear and poultry production, the city is now home to knowledge-intensive activities such as precision manufacturing, logistics, biomedical, R&D labs and business process outsourcing, as well as an ascendant tourism sector. Meanwhile, Santander’s oil industry, long a major employer in the region, has been a catalyst for developing and commercializing innovative technologies, rather than just drilling for, refining and shipping petroleum.

All these achievements are neither random nor accidental: They are the result of local stakeholders successfully working together to respond to the challenges of globalization and external competitive pressures.

Making cities competitive – What will it take?

Megha Mukim's picture

Cities are the future. They are where people live and work. They are where growth happens and where innovation takes place. But they are also poles of poverty and, much too often, centers of unemployment.

How can we unleash the potential of cities? How do we make them more competitive? These are urgent questions. Questions, as it turns out, with complex answers – that could potentially have huge returns for job creation and poverty reduction.

Cities vary enormously when it comes to their economic performance. While 72 percent of cities grow faster than their countries, these benefits do not happen uniformly across all cities. The top 10 percent of cities increase GDP almost three times more than the remaining 90 percent. They create jobs four to five times faster. Their residents enjoy higher incomes and productivity, and they are magnets for external investment.
We’re not just talking about the “household names”among global cities: Competitive cities are often secondary cities, many of them exhibiting success amidst adversity – some landlocked and in lagging regions within their countries. For instance, Saltillo (Mexico), Meknes (Morocco), Coimbatore (India), Gaziantep (Turkey), Bucaramanga (Colombia), and Onitsha (Nigeria) are a few examples of cities that have been competitive in the last decade.
So how do cities become competitive? We define competitive cities as those that successfully help firms and industries create jobs, raise productivity and increase the incomes of citizens. A team at the World Bank Group spent the last 18 months investigating, creating and updating our knowledge base for the benefit of WBG’s clients. In our forthcoming report, “Competitive Cities for Jobs and Growth,”* we find that the recipe includes several basic ingredients.

In the long term, cities moving up the income ladder will transform their economies, changing from “market towns” to “production centers” to “financial and creative centers,” increasing efficiencies and productivity at each stage. But economic data clearly shows there are large gains to be had even without full-scale economic transformation: Cities can move from $2,500 to $20,000 in per capita income while still remaining a “production center.”  In such cases, cities become more competitive at what they already do, finding niche products and markets in tradable goods and services. Competitive cities are those that manage to attract new firms and investors, while still nurturing established businesses and longtime residents. 
What sort of policies do competitive cities use? We find that leading cities focus their energies on leveraging both economy-wide and sector-specific policies. In practice, we see how successful cities create a favorable business climate and target individual sectors for pro-active economic development initiatives. They use a combination of policies focused on cross-cutting issues such as land, capital markets and infrastructure, while not losing focus on the needs of different industries and firms. The crucial factor is consultation, collaboration and partnerships with the private sector. In fact, success also involves building coalitions for growth with neighbors and other tiers of government.