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Urban Development

Transforming Sri Lanka’s Cities to be More Livable and Prosperous

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture

Sri Lanka night lights
Sri Lanka is in many ways a development success story.

Growth of income per person in Sri Lanka has averaged a little more than 7 percent a year over the past five years. That follows average growth of just over 5 percent a year in the preceding nine years. Among the six largest South Asian countries, Sri Lanka has the highest level of economic output per person. With sustained high growth, Sri Lanka has largely eradicated extreme poverty.

All this success has helped propel the country towards middle-income status. Going forward, how successfully Sri Lanka manages its cities will determine how quickly and efficiently the country moves to higher middle-income status and beyond. Every high-income economy has achieved this status through urbanization.

What can South Asian cities learn from Colombia's Medellin?

Sangmoo Kim's picture
Cable Car in Medellin
The Metro Cable in Medellin has facilitated greater access to mobility, services, and opportunities through connecting poorer neighborhoods with facilities and services throughout the city. Joe Qian/World Bank
Cities are created for human experiences and not for satellites in the sky. So why are there so many cities that while look impressive on a map, exclude so many of their residents from enjoying the full extent of their benefits? The key may be that details matter for inclusion of cities.
Inclusion means that all people and communities have access to rights, opportunities, and resources. Urbanization provides cities the potential to increase prosperity and livability. However, many suffer from poor environments, social instability, inequality, and concentrated pockets of poverty that create exclusion. In South Asia, as in other regions, segregation within cities cause poorer areas to suffer from the lack of access to facilities and services that exacerbate misery and crime.

Medellin, Colombia was once the most dangerous city on the planet with astounding gaps between the wealthy and the poor, vastly different access to services, and the highest homicide rate in the world. Its turnaround has been impressive. Much of the progress has been attributed to the thoughtfulness of its planning to ensure greater inclusion. What can South Asian cities learn from this South American city?

Planning policies and action have often been concentrated on the broad structures and functions of cities. However, drilling down the details can realize an inclusive urban environment that improves life for all in public spaces. In our definition, inclusive cities provide:                                                                              
  • Mobility: A high level of movement between different neighborhoods that provide opportunities for jobs, education, and culture;
  • Services: All neighborhoods have a basic level of facilities and affordable necesities such as housing, water, and sanitation;
  • Accessibility: Urban spaces are designed so that everyone can easily and safety enjoy public spaces. 
 Social inclusion requires greater planning at a micro scale
Scale matters: Inclusion requires greater planning at a micro scale. Sangmoo Kim/World Bank

What happened in Medellin, Colombia? Medellin offers an inspiring example of how improved planning and sound implementation can increase social inclusion. Two decades ago, Medellin was the homicide capital of the world. Illicit drugs were a major export and hillside slums were particularly affected by violence. In response, the government created public facilities inclusive of libraries and schools, public transportation links, and recreational spaces in the poorest neighborhoods; and connecting them with the city’s commercial and industrial centers. As a result of a planning model that seeks to serve all residents, the city has become safer, healthier, more educated and equitable. 

Rebuilding Nepal with traditional techniques

Nripal Adhikary's picture
Traditional house in Nepal's Central Hills
Traditional house in Nepal's Central Hills. Credit: ABARI

In Dolakha, a Thangmi woman rises early in the morning to mix together a paste of manure and clay. She kneels down on the floor of her broken home and smooths the mixture over the careworn earthen floor in preparation for another day of living in the earthquake’s aftermath. Over the mountains in Sindhupalchowk, a Tamang carpenter has fashioned a sturdy lodge from the stone rubble of his former home.

Serving his guests cups of strong sugary tea, he looks out the carved wooden windows he has built to the terraced fields he can no longer farm. Across the landscape devastated by the earthquake, Nepalis are creating shelters incorporating the architectural and design principles of familiar structures. The vernacular architecture of Nepal’s Central Hills is well adapted to the environment, and to the rhythms of agrarian routines.

An ideal Hill home is one with thick stonewalls, a ground floor kitchen, upper story bedrooms, an attic storage room, a spacious courtyard, veranda, and cozy and clean sheds for livestock.

More than dust in Delhi

Mark Roberts's picture
smog in delhi
The smog over Delhi. Photo credit: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier / Creative Commons

Urbanization provides the countries of South Asia with the opportunity to transform their economies to join the ranks of richer nations. But to reap the benefits of urbanization, nations must address the challenges it poses. Growing urban populations put pressure on a city’s infrastructure; they increase the demand for basic services, land and housing, and they add stress to the environment.
Of all these congestion forces, one of the most serious for health and human welfare is ambient air pollution from vehicle emissions and the burning of fossil fuels by industry and households, according to the World Bank report, Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability.”
Particularly harmful are high concentrations of fine particulate matter, especially that of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5). They can penetrate deep into the lungs, increasing the likelihood of asthma, lung cancer, severe respiratory illness, and heart disease.
Data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in May 2014 shows Delhi to have the most polluted air of any city in the world, with an annual mean concentration of PM2.5 of 152.6 μg/m3 . That is more than 15 times greater than the WHO’s guideline value and high enough to make Beijing’s air—known for its bad quality—look comparatively clean.

But Delhi is far from unique among South Asia’s cities.

Livability is an economic imperative for cities

Sangmoo Kim's picture
Sarbamati Riverfront Development before
Sarbamati Riverfront Development before
Sarbamati Riverfront Development after
Sarbamati Riverfront development after

Robert Solow once said: “Livability is not a middle-class luxury, it is an economic imperative.” But how related are livability and economic development?  Furthermore, how can we define and measure livability?

Recently as part of the South Asia Urbanization Flagship Report, Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability, our team compared a sample of South Asian cities with peers from around the world. The report’s framework considered livability (along with prosperity) as being a key outcome of urbanization.

We wanted to highlight that while urbanization has undoubtedly contributed to economic growth in South Asia, its impact on livability is more complex. As they have grown, South Asian cities have faced challenges arising from the pressure of their populations on basic services, infrastructure, land, housing, and the environment.  This has helped to give rise to what the report terms “messy” urbanization, characterized by slums and sprawl, not to mention levels of ambient outdoor air pollution that rank amongst the highest across cities globally.

The report suggests that to have a full understanding of the urbanization process in South Asia, it is necessary to discuss not only the positive productivity benefits that are associated with urban size and density, but also the negative “congestion” forces.  How successfully South Asian cities manage these forces will help to determine the quality of life not only of the region’s current half a billion urban residents, but also of the additional 250 million that will be added over the next 15 years.

Can better spatial planning and management transform South Asian cities?

Jon Kher Kaw's picture
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.

South Asian Urbanization: Messy and hidden

Mark Roberts's picture

South Asia is not fully realizing the potential of its cities for prosperity and livability, and, according to a new report by The World Bank, a big reason is that its urbanization has been both messy and hidden. Messy and hidden urbanization is a symptom of the failure to adequately address congestion constraints that arise from the pressure that larger urban populations put on infrastructure, basic services, land, housing, and the environment.

South Asia Urbanization Infrastructure infographic

Imagine a South Asia without borders

Annette Dixon's picture
Cranes in Bangladesh Harbor
Cranes in Bangladesh Harbor. Credit: Eric Nora / The World Bank

This blog is part of the series #OneSouthAsia exploring how South Asia can become a more integrated, thus more economically dynamic region. The blog series is a  lead up to the South Asia Economic Conclave, an event dedicated to deepening existing economic links through policy and investments in regional businesses.

Imagine a South Asia without borders. People, industries, goods and services flow freely in the most profitable way for all. Imagine that necessities sorely needed in one area are freely available from areas where there is plenty. South Asia’s story of poverty amidst plenty would begin to change.

South Asia not realizing full potential of urbanization

Mark Roberts's picture
Urbanization Report Cover

Urbanization provides South Asian countries with the potential to transform their economies to join the ranks of richer nations in both prosperity and livability. And, indeed the region has made strides in the early part of the century when its urban population grew by 130 million. Average GDP per capita is up and absolute poverty is down.

Urbanization in South Asia: How is it going?

Mark Roberts's picture
 World Bank
Street in old Delhi, India. Credit: World Bank
South Asia’s urban population grew by 130 million – more than the population of Japan – between 2001 and 2011, and is expected to rise by almost 250 million people by 2030. If recent history is any guide, this trend could propel the region toward greater growth and prosperity.
A key characteristic of urbanization is that the coming together of people and enterprises in towns and cities  -- a process known as agglomeration – improves productivity and spurs job creation. That’s particularly the case in manufacturing and services. Over the long term, successful urbanization is accompanied by a convergence of living standards between urban and rural areas as economic and social benefits spill beyond urban boundaries.
So how is South Asia doing in realizing the potential of its cities for prosperity and livability? What are the challenges facing the region’s countries as their urban populations grow? Are they meeting those challenges or are policy reforms needed?  And, if so, what type of reforms?
On September 24, the World Bank will release a new report titled, “Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability.
Urbanization in South Asia Report Cover
Urbanization in South Asia Report Cover.
Credit: World Bank