Can better spatial planning and management transform South Asian cities?

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Aerial view of Dhaka
Aerial view of Dhaka

South Asia’s urbanization has been described as “messy, hidden and underleveraged." A lot has to do with how South Asian countries manage their cities’ spatial development.

Having visited many cities in South Asia, the sight of the built environment in the region is a familiar one–a rapid expansion of built-up areas and an accompanying low-density sprawl that has, all too often, gone hand-in-hand with poorly managed transportation systems, planning constraints, underutilized land, and a lack of institutional capacity and resources. These forces result in high land and rental costs that make it extremely challenging for cities to support affordable housing and commercial space, and to maintain a livable public realm.

Between 1999 and 2010, the region’s cities grew about twice as fast in area as they grew in population, which suggests declining average city population densities and increasing sprawl. And when the growth of a city’s footprint exceeds the rate at which it can expand infrastructure and regulate development, spatial planning and services provision typically suffer. The implications are severe, especially when the region’s urban population is estimated to rise by almost 250 million people by 2030.

If South Asian cities are to continue harboring the promise of better livelihoods and living conditions for their citizens, then addressing the ability of South Asian countries to manage their cities’ spatial development is critical, in order to alleviate congestion pressures that undermine a city’s livability and hamper agglomeration economies; and to prevent their cities from being further locked in to a pattern of urban sprawl that is prohibitively costly to reverse. 

While every city faces its own unique set of circumstances, histories and political economy, the opportunities for planners, government policy makers, and stakeholders to better manage the spatial structure and intra- and interurban connectivity are there. These can be tackled at several levels:

•     Investing in transport links that improve connectivity between cities to create more efficient systems of cities. It is also critical to invest in improved intracity connectivity and traffic management to enhance mobility within urban areas and ease traffic congestion.

•     Adopting forward-looking approaches to planning and guiding expansion where it is most rapid—on city peripheries. This approach will reduce the messiness of urbanization, prevent undesirable spatial forms from being locked in, and facilitate future provision of infrastructure and basic urban services.

•     Unlocking the potential of city cores and carry out rejuvenation where cores have declined by investing in improvements such as better public urban spaces to enhance pedestrian walkability and livability. Promote better management of developable land in city cores through effective land-assembly mechanisms; making better use of publicly owned land; and reusing existing structures in an adaptive, appropriate, and innovative manner.

•     Most importantly, strengthening institutional capacity to plan, coordinate, implement, and enforce development to deliver integrated, coordinated, and smarter planning policies. By so doing, facilitate the formation of more vibrant neighborhoods and public space through granular and contextual spatial planning approaches. Land use planning must constantly adapt to changes in market demand within a framework that takes a long-term view of a city’s development.

There are a handful of successful examples of well-planned cities and initiatives in South Asia but in general, many South Asian cities must face these challenges and decide if they want to continue on the same path or undertake appropriate actions to transform the region’s trajectory of development towards a more prosperous and livable one.

Read the full report and its policy recommendations on managing spatial structure and connectivity in chapter 4 of the recently launched publication on “Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability”.


Jon Kher Kaw

Senior Urban Development Specialist

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