Urban Planning Decisions Lock Cities In for Generations

February 23, 2016


From left to right: Stephen Smith, Jan Brueckner, Asli Demirgüç-Kunt, Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez

  • The global urban population is increasing rapidly—by 75 million people every year.
  • Although urbanization holds great promise for raising living standards, it also carries risks such as sprawl, pollution, and environmental degradation.
  • The 3rd annual Urbanization and Poverty Reduction Research Conference brought thought leaders from around the world to debate how to best put urbanization on a sustainable path.

Over half the world’s population now lives in cities—and the global trend towards greater urbanization shows no signs of letting up. Whether pulled by job opportunities or pushed by unfavorable conditions in rural areas, 75 million more people per year are joining the ranks of cities across the globe.1

While urbanization holds promise for accelerating progress to a world without poverty, urban population growth also carries risks in the form of sprawl, pollution, and environmental degradation. At the 3rd annual Urbanization and Poverty Reduction Research Conference held at the World Bank in February, researchers and experts from around the globe gathered to share the latest research on how to ensure that urbanization delivers sustainable poverty reduction.

“Cities can be engines of innovation, growth, and prosperity,” said Research Director Asli Demirguc-Kunt.  “But rapid and unplanned urban growth can threaten sustainable development.” She pointed to the disproportionate role of cities in climate change as larger cities consume two-thirds of the world’s energy and create over 70 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.

At the same time, cities are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Across the world, cities are increasingly exposed to climate-induced risks. Cities as far apart as Dhaka and New Orleans have witnessed the devastating impacts of flooding. Despite the risks, many cities have not implemented crucially needed policies to protect cities from climate change’s impacts.

" Cities can be engines of innovation, growth, and prosperity. "

Asli Demirgüç-Kunt

Director of Research

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez, Senior Director of the World Bank’s Urban, Rural, and Social Development Global Practice, pointed to the timeliness of the conference as it comes in the build up to Habitat 3, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development taking place in October. United Nations member states will gather in Quito, Ecuador to secure a renewed political commitment for sustainable urban development. He pointed to a range of pressing questions that policy makers and development partners need answers to:

  1. To what extent are poor households able to access a city’s services and infrastructure?
  2. What is the magnitude of congestion costs and how can urban planners mitigate these costs?
  3. What can cities do to boost the efficient functioning of their land and property markets?
  4. How can cities avoid locking into a development path that includes lots of sprawl?
  5. What steps can cities take to increase political accountability to their constituents?

Researchers from the World Bank, think tanks, and academia grappled with these questions throughout the day. Presentations addressed topics ranging from urban form sustainability, inter and intra-urban mobility, energy consumption in cities, climate-change induced migration, and the downsides of industrialization. The participants highlighted two key areas—urban density and local governance—where policy holds great potential to increase the sustainability of cities.  

While the diversity of topics was large, a feeling of extraordinary urgency connected all of the presentations. The ‘lock-in effect’ of decisions taken today about the structure of cities will carry consequences for many generations to come. As Paul Romer, a professor at New York University and Director of the Marron Institute of Urban Management, concluded, “planning for urban expansion is the most important priority in economic development.”


1 Data Source: United Nations, World Urbanization Prospects, the 2014 Revision (http://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/DataQuery/)