World Resources Report: Towards a More Equal City – Framing the Opportunities and Challenges-

Surat, India, where a plague outbreak triggered urban transformation. Photo by qusai_haider/Flickr

Urban leaders from around the world are meeting in Quito, Ecuador, October 17-20, 2016, to set the global agenda for the future of cities at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, known as Habitat III. Through the World Resources Report (WRR) on sustainable cities, WRI provides research to help create cities that live, move and thrive.

Once every 20 years, the world’s urban leaders gather to determine the best course of action for the world’s cities. This year, at Habitat III, the 21st century challenges for cities are clear: the planet’s urban population is expected to increase by 60 percent by 2050, with much of that growth occurring in lower income countries and in cities with lower budgets per capita to address the challenges created by urbanization.

WRI’s World Resources Report: Towards a More Equal City examines whether providing equitable access to core services leads to a more economically productive and environmentally sustainable city.

The Challenge for Cities

The next generation of cities will be very different from those of the past, which requires a re-examination of conventional responses to the challenges of urbanization. Imagine the combined populations of China and India—more than 2.5 billion people—moving into the world’s cities by 2050, mostly to cities in Asia and Africa. By mid-century, 52 percent of the world’s total urban population will be in Asia and 21 percent in Africa.

While the global poverty rate is falling, the proportion of the poor living in cities is greater than ever before. This makes it harder for cities to provide basic services for all residents. Our research finds that as much as 70 percent of urban residents in emerging and struggling Asian, African and Latin American cities lack reliable access to core services such as housing, water, energy and transportation. City leaders face a tension between meeting the immediate and growing demand for services, and making longer term decisions that affect the built environment.

What does this mean for Job Mauti in Nairobi, who walks two hours to work each day to support his large extended family, and uses kerosene and an illegal electricity connection to provide energy for cooking and lights for studying in his home? What does it mean for Anita in Delhi, who has a university degree and a good job, but must spend a long time taking a combination of buses, metro and rickshaws to get to work, and still feels unsafe? Or Didi in Porto Alegre, Brazil, whose family has a house with access to services, but in an area where crime is a constant threat?

For these three city-dwellers and millions more like them, the lack of access to core services can mean they are forced to fend for themselves in inefficient and costly ways that hamper their quality of life and risk damaging the environment.

Approaches to Meeting Core Service Needs

The World Resources Report takes equitable access to core services as its entry point and explores whether meeting the needs of the urban under-served leads to a more productive and environmentally sustainable city. The WRR will examine how cities can provide their growing populations with secure, affordable shelter located near economic opportunities and essential services. It looks at how effective policy approaches are over the long term. The WRR specifically explores upgrading of informal settlements, support for rental markets, and creative uses of underutilized land. The report examines how cities can provide clean, affordable, reliable energy through innovations like modern fuel, clean and efficient cook stoves, and distributed renewable energy. It also analyzes how cities can put people instead of cars at the heart of decision-making, to support walking, biking and accessible public transportation.

How Can We Transform Cities?

Sector-specific approaches are a start, but they are not enough. To build thriving cities, we need approaches that transcend isolated sectoral solutions and piecemeal approaches. Through a preliminary analysis of two case studies, Medellín and Surat, we observed that urban transformation encompasses some common features—a strong coalition of urban change agents with a shared vision, successfully addressing a seminal problem that unleashes a cycle of positive change, the availability of financial resources to implement ambitious reforms, and a long-term political commitment. Despite these common features there is no single path for every city. Through a series of more in-depth, city-level case studies we will ask the question: Is it possible to learn from cases of successful transformations in a way that can help other cities usher in their own transformation?

Medellin, Colombia, transformed itself from the murder capital of the world into a thriving metropolis, in part by improving access to core services in imaginative ways. For example, the city constructed a cable car system to connect isolated hillside communities to the city center. This and other urban development projects helped the municipal government build a coalition with political leaders and the private sector, which in turn built momentum for more changes, such as new schools, new parks, a museum and a revised housing policy that legalized informal homes. No single factor explains the transformation in Medellin; a mutually reinforcing set of factors made the change happen.

In Surat, India, an outbreak of plague prompted a change in the healthcare system and triggered urban transformation. The city government initiated vigorous cleanup efforts, changes to waste management and water systems, and new public health monitoring. These reforms were accompanied by changes to the governance and budget processes, and further buoyed by strong municipal leadership and coalition-building with the private sector and civil society groups. The result was transformation in still other areas, such as flood risk management and building climate resilience.

These are only two examples where targeting a core urban service that improves the quality of life for the majority of people in a city can lead to lasting positive change and transform the city. The WRR will continue to dig deep into more such examples in the coming year. Stay tuned for more.

WRI’s World Resources Report will focus on challenges and solutions over the next year aimed at creating more equal cities. Future research papers will look at practical solutions to core services like housing, energy, and transportation as well as provide insights into the broader process of urban transformation. The WRI will launch the report Oct. 16 in Quito.

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