Voices & Views

Urban Planning: Creating Sustainable and Safe Cities

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A group of people composed of slum dwellers from several African cities has been contributing to improving urban planning in Monrovia. 

Liberia’s capital was originally built with half a million people in mind. But the steadily growing population over the last five decades and conflicts during the 1990s swelled Monrovia’s population to 1.6 million; overwhelming its capacity to provide water, sanitation and housing. In fact since 2005 Liberia has one of the highest population growth rates in the world at around 3% per year.

One obstacle to tackling the city’s problems is a lack of information on the size and scale of informal settlements and their inhabitants. Slum dwellers who have worked on similar projects know how to gather such data. So they are coming from Uganda, Kenya and Ghana to help produce a map of Monrovia’s slums.

“Unless you know all the informal settlements, you can't plan for the whole city,” said Sheela Patel, Chair of Shack / Slum Dwellers International (SDI). “You can't just plan for the formal city, and you can't just plan for the slums that you see when you cross the road. There are many slums that are hidden, and you have to gather all of them.”

The work illustrates the crucial importance of spatial planning for developing-country cities – a theme emphasised by a number of participants in panel discussions at the 2015 European Development Days (EDD). According to the UN, 54% of the world’s population were residing in urban areas in 2014. By 2050 this is projected to rise to 66%, mainly due to natural population growth within cities. In Africa, urban populations will grow by more than 350 million people over the next 25 years, one of the biggest and fastest urbanisation trends ever experienced in human history. Around the world, rural areas are expected to de-populate, while villages will increasingly become populous towns.

But poor migrants are arriving in cities that are unable to meet needs such as housing, sanitation and transport. So they settle wherever they can, propelling the growth of slums. “Most growth takes place in the absence of forward planning for cities,” said William Cobbett, Director of Cities Alliance. “Most growth is on the worst possible land because it's been made available. Therefore the urban poor become the most exposed to disasters – manmade and others.”

The resulting slums can fuel corruption and insecurity. New arrivals are unable to access legal services, land or housing, so they often live in ways that are technically illegal. They occupy land on slopes that are subject to landslides, and they are vulnerable to eviction and exploitation. Their children often have poor access to primary and secondary education.

In comparison to rural poverty, which has been generally better documented and targeted by international development assistance, urban poverty gets far less attention.

Cities in developing countries are struggling to anticipate and manage overcrowded slums, resulting in hostility and anger within and around the surrounding urban areas. This tension often gains worldwide press attention, giving a city or its country a bad name.

Cities often try to clear slums around global events – for example the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games both in Rio de Janeiro – to make the city look cleaner and safer. But this does not help the problem and can make life more difficult for the evicted slum dwellers.

“Sometimes urbanisation and the growth of cities are seen as a problem because they are manifested in urban poverty – in slums, in bad conditions,” says Cobbett. “The response that we often see is an attempt to slow down or negate the possibility of urban growth.”

That’s the wrong reaction, development experts say. Urban settlements will continue to grow whether or not the growth is planned. By the end of the century, 85% of the world’s population will live in cities.

Moreover, cities have great potential to improve welfare. They tend to encourage political progress, such as women’s rights and democratic participation. And metropolitan areas throw up more job opportunities: their populations tend to be better educated; they are more productive than the countryside; and they generate stronger economic growth, which spills over into surrounding areas.

“Urbanisation is a process by which human societies improve their conditions of life,” said Joan Clos, Executive Director, United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). “It is a prerequisite for sustainable development. We don’t know of any community, any society that has developed without urbanisation.”

A concentrated population also allows more effective delivery of services, from water to healthcare. Cities might generate pollution, but that’s because they offer energy and transport that are unavailable elsewhere – and they can deliver these more cleanly and efficiently.

“Nobody can deny that cities are major contributors to pollution and the reasons for climate change,” said Paolo Ciccarelli, Head of Unit for Water, Energy and Infrastructures at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development. “But we have also to understand that there is a very good opportunity in cities, as we can provide cheaper access to water, to energy and to other services, at the same time as fighting climate change.”

Getting the right result from urbanisation requires effort – and good government. This might be helped by the inclusion of cities in the Sustainable Development Goals to be adopted by the UN in September: Goal 11 is to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

Currently however, urban planning suffers from a lack of coordination. All too often, a hospital is built here, a road there, and a group of houses somewhere else, said Clos. But these facilities can serve the population’s needs only when they are planned together, so that housing is served by transport and schools and hospitals are built where they are needed and accessible.

A major cause of this problem is fragmented city government, said Rudiger Ahrend, Head of Unit for Urban Policy at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “For a given population size, economic productivity is 6% lower when the number of municipalities is doubled,” he said. “The government structure in these cities does not work.”

Some decisions that impact cities can only be taken by a country’s central government, such as the powers and financial resources granted to local governments. “Too often, the central government pretends that the outcome of urbanisation is not related to the national policies, and then they tend to pass the responsibility to the local government,” said Clos. “There is no such thing as a good urban outcome without a serious undertaking of responsibility both by the central government and the local government.” Other problems are out of government hands altogether. Property ownership substantially lowers the risks of a woman suffering domestic abuse and violence. In one study, 71% of women who owned property left an abusive situation, compared with 19% who did not.

However, despite laws the change is not always happening. For instance in India giving women the same rights as men to inherit their parents’ property, daughters are often made to sign this away to their brothers, said Deepali Sood, Head of Partnerships – Foundations, Organizations, Institutions at Habitat for Humanity. “Even if a legal framework exists, customary law – pressure from families and society – forces them to let go of their rights,” she said. On behalf of Habitat for Humanity, she called for the EU to shift its focus from rural problems and focus more on urban land rights.

Above all, governments need to stop seeing cities and their inhabitants as a problem, and start helping urban areas to contribute to economic growth and welfare. “Slum dwellers are not just poor people, wanting aid,” said Patel. “They are important drivers of development. The cities of tomorrow are going to have more poor people for a very long time before good development transforms everybody's lives. So, unless poor people participate very centrally in solution developments, cities are not going to work for everybody.”

The interviewees were in Brussels to attend the following European Development Days panels addressing urbanisation issues:

  1. Megatrend urbanisation: Metropolitan governance as a chance for sustainable urban and regional development
  2. Sustainable cities: Good for the global North, but not the global South? - A video recording of this session is available on the event page.
  3. Solid ground: Access to land for vulnerable people in developing countries


You can also find out more about urbanisation in the Public Group on Urban Development.


This collaborative piece was drafted by Sebastian Moffett with input from Cities Alliance, Habitat for Humanity, Plácido Hernández Aguilar and Sophie Lainé from DEVCO, with support from the capacity4dev.eu Coordination Team. Photo credits: "Mangalore City" by Byawarsi - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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