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FEATURE STORY June 7, 2019

An Obstacle or Opportunity? Building Urban Resilience in Freetown


Photo: R. Reid/World Bank


  • Two new reports analyze Freetown’s key urbanization and development challenges and chart a resilient way forward
  • The Freetown Urban Sector Review and Multi-City Hazard and Risk Assessment highlight and provide recommendations to address some of challenges, including floods, landslide and coastal erosion risks expected to worsen from climate change, unplanned urbanization, and continuing environmental degradation
  • The Government of Sierra Leone and Freetown City Council are working with The World Bank and partners, to support sustainable communities to Transform Freetown into a city that works to build resilience for a better future

FREETOWN, June 7, 2019 – Policy decisions made now will determine whether Sierra Leone’s sprawling capital city, Freetown, will drive the country’s future economic transformation or hamper it, according to a recent World Bank analysis.

The report, Freetown Urban Sector Review: Options for Growth and Resilience, highlights how the country has a rare opportunity to develop smart policies that can turn the city into a platform for resilient growth. It also notes that the window of opportunity for developing and implementing solutions is closing and the cost of inaction is high.

“Freetown is growing rapidly but is not delivering its full potential. Policy choices made in Freetown will determine whether the city becomes an engine or an obstacle for economic transformation for all of Sierra Leone. Purposeful and bold policy is needed from the incoming government.”  said Mesky Brhane, Practice Manager for Urban Development and Disaster Risk Management, Social, Urban, Rural, and Resilience Global Practice, the World Bank.

The report further identifies a series of development challenges facing Freetown, including its rapid but fragmented growth, that could be urgently addressed through coherent policy changes. Freetown is one of the most crowded cities in the world. Expansion is largely dominated by extension towards the center of the peninsula, but due to Freetown’s topography, this means 38% of the city’s expansion has taken place in either medium or high-risk areas, the report points out. With a lack of coherent urban planning and a scarcity of affordable housing, this precarious expansion has also resulted in the proliferation of slum housing in flood prone areas.

To address these challenges, the review makes three key recommendations:

  • Reform the use of land and invest in infrastructure to reduce urban sprawl, make land available for housing and generate productive clusters of economic activity within the central business district.
  • Strengthen local government finances and invest in city capability by leveraging their own financial scope through developing a clearer valuation database alongside the Ministry of Lands, investing in renewing the cadaster and improvement of the property taxation system.
  • Clarify planning mandates and build resilience into the city’s urban strategy at both local and national levels to engage in the long-term planning for the city, its function and future urban expansion. Urban planning is a powerful force which is crucial for cities to reach their potential and mitigate environmental hazards.


The recently-released Sierra Leone Multi-City Hazard Review and Risk Assessment also reveals findings that buttress these recommendations. The report, which provides in-depth, technical assessments for the cities of Freetown, Makeni and Bo, identifies Freetown as the city with the greatest level of risk. Makeni and Bo are also set to make risk-informed planning decisions to prevent the creation of new risks. The report also analyzes the main hazards from landslide, sea-level rise and flooding, and offers a view to 2050, with the impacts of climate change and future urban growth.

Gayle Martin, World Bank Country Manager for Sierra Leone, said the reports are an urgent call to action for concrete steps to be taken for the country to transform its the urban landscapes for a more resilient, and prosperous future.

We at the Bank very much look forward to working together with the government at the local and national levels and with our development partners, to support the implementation of the Transform Freetown Plan and contribute to Freetown’s effective management to become a well-adapted, resilient sustainable city, which is able to cater to the rising urban population and service delivery needs,” she added.

To visualize how Freetown’s population and assets are distributed, over 30,000 buildings were mapped and publicly published on Open Street Map in the risk assessment. These maps will serve as planning tools to target investments and address hazards and risks where they are most needed.

The reports are a call to urgent action for concrete steps to be taken, calling for Sierra Leone to transform its the urban landscapes of its cities for a more resilient, and prosperous future. To achieve this, symbolic investments are needed. This will propell citizens to become part of the solution to implementing a common vision so that Freetown can pave a way for the growth of other sustainable African cities.