Five strategic priorities for intermediate cities in Bolivia

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When you think of Bolivia, which is the first city that comes to mind? La Paz? Santa Cruz or maybe Cochabamba? But what about Trinidad or Tarija? Or perhaps Cobija or Riberalta? These are relatively smaller cities when compared to cities like La Paz or Santa Cruz, but they are growing the fastest in terms of population. Why is that? And how can these smaller, intermediate cities manage growth so that they are sustainable and prepared for the future? 

Intermediate cities in Bolivia are classified as those with a population between 50,000 and 500,000 inhabitants and economies typically specialized in tertiary services or industry.
Bolivia is at a critical stage in its urbanization process. Compared to other countries in Latin America, the urbanization process started relatively late in Bolivia. Today nearly two-thirds of Bolivians live in urban areas and the United Nations estimates that by 2025 nearly 75% will be urban. This situation offers a unique opportunity to act and harness the benefits of urbanization.

The World Bank has conducted an extensive analysis of intermediate cities in Bolivia and identified five strategic priorities for these fast-growing cities:

  • Building compact cities

In most cities in Bolivia, the population increase results in a massive extension of the urban surface area as self-built, low-density houses start to cluster on the fringes of the city.

The development and maintenance of a widespread network of services, however, is expensive and traveling long distances to get to work results in high costs and loss of productive time. Transportation costs disproportionally affect the poor, who are typically located in disconnected areas of the city.

Furthermore, these homes located at the fringes of the cities are often in locations prone to natural hazards like landslides or flooding.

By using territorial planning tools, cities can steer their growth to density instead of expansion of urban fabric in such a way that its inhabitants are not deliberately exposed to these risks, costs of services are more manageable, and travel distances are shorter.

  • Data is important

To manage cities effectively it is critical to understand what specific challenges exist in key sectors such as health, services, education, infrastructure, and housing. To evaluate the urban fabric by measurable indicators helps to get to the bottom of these challenges and set the baseline to measure the impact of future projects.
Relevant data as for example on mobility, poverty or access to basic services can often be collected in a simple extension of regular population Census. However, it is important that the methodology is consistent throughout the country and that it aligns with international recommendations like the ones that have been developed at Habitat III.

Further, it is essential to include all settlements, the formal and informal into the data collection to get a complete evaluation. Establishing a cadaster system registering all lots and inhabitants simplifies data collection and analysis and at the same time is an opportunity for further revenue generation.

  • Strengthening resilience toward natural hazards
The concept of disaster resilience evolves around three aspects: Evaluation of current and future risks, coherent territorial planning, and structural improvements.

In addition, it is crucial to develop institutional mechanisms which take immediate effect in case a disaster occurs, such that competencies are clear and there is no time wasted to provide help to the affected population.
  • Investing in human capital
Intermediate cities in Bolivia receive a significantly higher per capita contribution in transfers from the national government than larger cities. Consequently, it is not primarily funding what the municipalities are lacking, but the capacity to manage funds and implement projects with a clear territorial development vision. To make efficient use of both the land and funds as well as to harness further revenue potential it is critical to have qualified staff working in city governments. This means training in urban and territorial planning, data collection and municipal management. But cities cannot do this alone.

To sustain institutional capacity investments in the long term, continuous technical assistance is needed from the regional and national levels. For instance, municipal administrations of intermediate cities could join forces with national and regional authorities to organize workshops and training programs for their staff to disseminate knowledge of best practices.
  • Harnessing local economies
Each secondary city has its own characteristics regarding geography, prevalence of economic activities and role in the national network of cities. It is important to evaluate these factors and tailor territorial development strategies specifically to these conditions.

Economic development initiatives should build on analysis of local economies and consider related value chain clusters as possible new fields of economic activities.

Strategies to harness local economies range from creating partnerships between the city’s most established or emerging firms to take on trainees to matching skills taught in schools with the needs of local companies or support to build new economies around existing ones.

All the mentioned strategies, but especially the first three, overlap and are interlinked. Addressing one of them lowers the bar for achieving the others. Which means there is no wrong place to start and Bolivia’s intermediate cities can tackle the challenges of rapid urban growth step by step to provide the new urban residents with increased quality of life.


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