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Urban jungles in jeopardy

Ivo Germann's picture
Why the world’s cities are at risk – and what we can do to make them more resilient



We may not know exactly what the world will look like in two decades, but we know this: it is going to be a world of cities.
 
The global population is becoming increasingly urban, and at an astonishing rate. Each year, urban areas are growing by an average of more than 75 million people – more than the population of the world’s 85 smallest countries combined.
 
For the world’s economy, this is great news, since cities produce 80 percent of global GDP, despite currently being home to only 55 percent of the population. But it is a problem for urban infrastructure, which can’t keep up with such fast-paced growth. As a result, cities, already vulnerable, are becoming increasingly susceptible to natural disasters – from flooding and landslides that can decimate informal housing settlements, to earthquakes that can devastate power grids and water systems.
 
These risks could be disastrous for the urban poor, 881 million of whom currently live in slums (up 28 percent since 2000). And climate change – which is increasing the intensity and frequency of natural disasters – will only exacerbate the problem. For this reason, multilateral and government institutions now see resilience and climate adaptation as integral pillars of development.
 
The Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), for example, considers low-emission and climate-resilient economies to be key to global competitiveness. A recent report by the World Bank and the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) found that climate change may force up to 77 million urban residents into poverty by 2030 – unless we take action to improve the resilience of cities around the world.

A year of building sustainable communities in 12 stories

Andy Shuai Liu's picture
What are some of the key issues that will shape global development in 2017?

​From addressing the forced displacement crisis to helping indigenous communities, and from implementing the “New Urban Agenda” to enhancing resilience to disasters and climate change, one thing is clear: we must step up efforts to build and grow economies and communities that are inclusive, resilient, and sustainable for all—especially for the poor and vulnerable.
 
In the timeline below, revisit some of the stories on sustainable development that resonated the most with you last year, and leave a comment to let us know what you wish to see more of in our “Sustainable Communities” blog series in 2017.

Competitive cities for jobs, growth, poverty reduction and shared prosperity?

Soraya Goga's picture
Photo by ecuadorpostales via Shutterstock

We are all aware of the statistics: cities are home to more than 50% of the world’s population, and they are growing so fast that 66 out of 100 people on earth will be urban dwellers by 2050. This, of course, will have major implications for people and poverty, climate change, and service delivery.
 
But did you also know that cities are the key drivers of global and national economic growth?
 
Currently, cities generate more than 80% of global GDP. Since the early 2000s, three-quarters of the world’s 750 largest cities have grown faster than their national economies. One of the key reasons for those cities’ success is higher productivity—as a result of their ability to attract skilled workers—as well as a high concentration of productive entrepreneurs and firms.
 
For decades, national and city leaders have also taken actions to build competitive cities, increasingly facilitating firms and industries to create jobs, raise productivity, and increase incomes over time—especially for the urban poor. They see this as the pathway to eliminate extreme poverty and to promote shared prosperity. This is particularly important in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where most of the world’s extreme poor live.

How geospatial technology can help cities plan for a sustainable future

Xueman Wang's picture
In this video, representatives from the World Bank, GEF, and City of Johannesburg discuss the impact of geospatial tools on urban planning.

Many urban residents these days will find it hard to imagine a life without mobile apps that help us locate a restaurant, hail a cab, or find a subway station—usually in a matter of seconds. If geospatial technology and data already make our everyday lives this easier, imagine what they can do for our cities: for example, geospatial data on land-use change and built-up land expansion can provide for more responsive urban planning, while information on traffic conditions, road networks, and solid waste sites can help optimize management and enhance the quality of urban living.

The “urban geo-data gap”
 
However, information and data that provide the latest big picture on urban land and services often fail to keep up with rapid population growth and land expansion. This is especially the case for cities in developing countries—home to the fastest growing urban and vulnerable populations.

Success when we deemed it failure? Revisiting sites and services 20 years later

Sumila Gulyani's picture
Between 1977 and 1997, the World Bank supported “sites and services” projects in 27 cities across India
A freshly-minted architect stood staring at a sea of toilets. Row after row of them, on small “housing plots” meant for low-income families who would build their house incrementally as their incomes and savings grew. The neighborhood was “planned” and provided with services—under a World Bank-supported “sites and services” project—to serve as the anti-thesis of and an antidote to the slums that were, at the time, increasingly becoming the only housing option for low-income families.

It was 1980 and the architect, Barjor Mehta, was deeply disappointed. There were no houses, no people and no chance that they would ever come, given the seemingly god-forsaken location—in an area called Arrumbakkam—so far from the city center in Madras (now Chennai). Having just completed his thesis on housing, he wrote a scathing news article in the Times of India denouncing the sites and services approach. Barjor wasn’t alone in his critique, and by the mid-1990s the World Bank had almost entirely abandoned such projects.

In October 2015, Barjor, now Lead Urban Specialist at the Bank, invited me to revisit Arumbakkam and other neighborhoods developed, between 1977 and 1997, under four Bank-supported sites and services projects: With my colleagues Kate Owens and Andrea Rizvi, I visited 15 of the 28 sites developed in Chennai and Mumbai. We also reviewed archival material, analyzed satellite images, and recently presented our preliminary findings. Now, Barjor and I agree that previous assessments of failure may have been both premature and erroneous. Why?

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.

How can South Asian countries make the most of urbanization?

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
The World Bank recently completed a comprehensive study that looks into the specifics of urban development across South Asia, and provides policy recommendations to help countries in the region build more prosperous, livable cities. One of the most innovative features of this South Asia Urbanization Review is that it relies extensively on geospatial mapping and satellite imagery, especially night-time light data. This approach allowed World Bank experts to overcome the lack of reliable, cohesive urbanization data across South Asian countries, and to measure the footprint of urban settlements in a consistent way. They quickly found out that urban expansion in South Asia remains largely unplanned, and often spreads to areas that are not officially considered urban - prompting them to describe urbanization in the region as "hidden" and "messy". In this video, Peter Ellis provides a more detailed overview of the main findings, and describes how South Asian countries have a unique opportunity to get urbanization right as their cities continue to grow.

Bright Lights, Big Cities

Mark Roberts's picture

Delhi night-time lights data imageIf you visit the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., one of the exhibits you’ll come across is a map of the Earth, which shows lights detected by satellites at night. With even a cursory look, it’s clear the lights pick out spatial patterns of urban and economic development.  Look at the USA, and you see the coasts are brightly lit, whereas the country’s interior is much less so.  Look at the Korea peninsula and you see that whilst South Korea is almost ablaze with light, the North is noteworthy for its almost complete absence of light.

The potential ability of night-time lights imagery to detect spatial patterns of urban and economic development has been known in the remote sensing community since the late 1970s.  However, it has only recently been brought to the attention of economists following a paper by Vernon Henderson, Adam Storeygard and David Weil entitled “Measuring Economic Growth from Outer Space.”  This paper alerted economists to the strong correlation between a country’s rate of GDP growth and the growth in intensity of its night-time lights, and the fact that the lights represent (for economists) a relatively untapped dataset with global coverage and a time-series dating back more than twenty years.

Shades of Green Cities

Yue Li's picture

Seoul, KoreaWhen it comes to urban development, “green” has become the buzzword. Among the public, “green” is often understood to be synonymous with reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In policymaking, “green” has much broader implications. It can range from preventing, treating, and abating pollution, to preserving and restoring environmental quality. It may simply be providing basic urban services which improve the cleanliness of streets. Apparently, there are different shades of “green” — we could define interventions targeting global public goods as dark green and those focusing more on local public goods as light green. Among them, what is the right one for South Asian cities?

Practitioners and government officials from the region had intensive discussions on this question throughout a recent workshop on urbanization in Korea, organized by the World Bank in collaboration with the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements.