Cities across the global south are in a bind. As they absorb more residents, providing access to core services like housing and energy – already a challenge – is getting even harder. Policymakers are looking for answers, and Alain Bertaud, a senior research scholar at the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, says they should look elsewhere than existing large cities.
Speaking to WRI during a workshop for the latest World Resources Report (WRR), “Towards a More Equal City,” on achieving more prosperous, sustainable and equitable cities for all, Bertaud says many rapidly growing cities will need to break from the status quo. Traditional urban policies are too often geared toward preventing change rather than encouraging it.
Bertaud has a wealth of experience to draw from. He served as principal urban planner at the World Bank until 1999, where he worked on policy and infrastructure development in South Asia as well as transition economies like China, Russia and Eastern Europe. He’s also served as a resident urban planner in Bangkok, San Salvador, Port au Prince, Sana’a, New York, Paris, Tlemcen and Chandigarh.
“Cities in developing countries are very different, depending on whether you’re talking about Asia, Latin America or Africa,” Bertaud says. “I think that in the case of Asia and Africa, we are going to see a massive urbanization that has no precedent.”
The world’s urban population is expected to increase by 2.5 billion people by 2050, with more than 90 percent of the growth in Asia and Africa. “Unfortunately, most of the cities in [these regions] have regulations and also a pattern of urban investment which are inherited from other cities,” he says. Many are simply not prepared to deal with the scale of change.
Bertaud believes that it’s the cities that embrace rapid urbanization that will be the most successful – not those trying to slow it down.
Where does he look for examples? “We have cities like Ahmedabad in India that have created innovative regulations for developing land very fast,” he says. “We can also take the example of China in a certain way. China has been able to develop urban infrastructure very fast.” Another is Hyderabad, also in India, where city officials have done away with restrictive regulations that prevent the efficient use of urban land.
Focus on Mobility and Affordability
But it’s critical to recognize that there is no silver bullet. “There are about a thousand things that cities need to do to be able to cope with urbanization,” Bertaud says.
Most migrants to cities are poor. To ensure inclusive growth that benefits everyone, cities should take a flexible approach to land management, without minimum standards of consumption for land and housing. More than 881 million people live in informal settlements in the global south – about one-third the urban population. Reforming land use regulations and policies can help remove obstacles and disincentives that block new housing for low-income residents, as the second working paper in the WRR series explores.
“Basically, I think that every person responsible for urban development should focus really on two aspects: mobility and affordability,” Bertaud says. “Mobility to let low-income people move, not to some industrial area…but to be able to look for jobs all around a large metropolitan area. And affordability, to make sure that the land supply, and the floor space supply, and the housing supply is such that everybody has access to it.”
Bertaud contends that pollution and global warming are two urgent issues, but that they should be thought of as constraints on development, rather than objectives. This is not explicitly expressed as such.
“Too often, I think that recently, reducing pollution has become an objective per se, and therefore the easiest way to reduce pollution is to prevent development,” he says. “The challenge is really to take pollution and global warming extremely seriously but to try to find solutions that still provide mobility and affordability to low-income people.”
Fortunately, there are a number of solutions that are good for both people and the planet. Bus rapid transit corridors have helped Mexico City improve air quality while increasing access to jobs. Creative climate adaptation plans can similarly meet development and environmental objectives. And research shows that pursuing compact urban growth strategies in India can save up to 6 percent of GDP and simultaneously reduce emissions.
Alex Rogala is a former editor of TheCityFix and currently a master’s student in urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.