Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities

Image: Asiye eTafuleni

Image: Asiye eTafuleni

World Resources Report

Chapter 1

The Cities We Need

The current wave of urbanization is failing to address a growing divide between those who have access to services and opportunities and those who do not, with local and global consequences for sustainable development. Improving the lived experience of people in the city is a key lever for achieving transformative change.

1.1 The World Is Witnessing a New Kind of Urbanization

The world is urbanizing on a scale and at a pace that are unprecedented in human history. In 1950 fewer than one-third of the planet’s population lived in cities.90 Today more than half do, and by midcentury that share is expected to rise to two-thirds. In just three decades, another 2.5 billion people will become city dwellers.

Cities now generate 80 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP). As they have for millennia, cities drive advances in productivity, innovation, and culture. They can offer liberation as well as freedom from a rural life hemmed in by the daily struggle for subsistence. For some, they bring opportunity and a better, more prosperous life.

But today, this is no longer true for many city dwellers. Where urbanization is happening fastest, we are not building the cities we need. Between 2018 and 2050, nearly 90 percent of urban growth will take place in in Africa and Asia.91 There, and elsewhere in the global South, millions crowd into cities where it is hard just to survive, let alone thrive, and where city governments are least equipped to help them. Core infrastructure is inadequate or crumbling, basic services are lacking, and inequality is deepening. In these fast-growing cities, an urban services divide separates those who have access to clean water, sewer systems, electricity, transport, decent housing, and jobs from those who do not. Most residents are already on the wrong side of that divide. This is robbing them of the chance to improve their lives.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a harsh spotlight on this urban services divide, underscoring what has always been true: sharing communal toilets and cramped, overcrowded houses without running water to wash your hands can spread diseases that kill you. It has reminded us that lacking basic infrastructure and services is not just a hardship but also a matter of life and death.

The urban services divide harms everyone

Those who lack basic infrastructure and services suffer disproportionately, not just from disease outbreaks but also from threats of all kinds, including economic shocks and natural disasters. And even in normal times, they pay a stiff penalty. They struggle every day to meet basic needs for housing, water, sanitation, energy, and transport—and what they can get is often inferior to, and more expensive than, municipal services available to others.92 They may pay more too, not just as a share of income but also in absolute terms. Lacking services makes them less healthy and productive. Unequal access to essential infrastructure can have a much greater impact on lives and livelihoods than differences in earnings because it determines lifelong outcomes for generations.

The urban services divide does not just harm the poor, however; it worsens everyone’s quality of life (see Box 1). The consequences include clogged streets, polluted water and air, vanishing natural resources, stalled productivity, and corrosive poverty. Unplanned, sprawling development without basic infrastructure leaves residents stripping and burning forests for fuel, sitting in endless traffic jams, and discharging sewage into open pits. Valuable resources are being squandered, and air and water are being polluted and making people sick.

Failing to close this divide could trap cities in a cycle of economic stagnation and environmental degradation for the rest of the century and beyond. Developing and emerging nations need cities to be economic locomotives that can pull them forward. Instead, these cities could actually drain their resources and even threaten their political stability.

Without urgent, decisive action, this situation will only worsen. In low- and middle-income countries of the global South, where the services gap is most acute, decision-makers struggle with scarce resources and mounting pressures to meet immediate needs. The long-term costs of each incremental choice may not be clear. But each decision may shape the built environment for generations, and the wrong choice could embed poverty, deny opportunity, and widen the services divide in ways that become harder to reverse.

The consequences are global

Global efforts to fight poverty and climate change hinge on what happens in these cities.93 In many countries, poverty is shifting from rural to urban areas, a rising share of the urban population is poor, and poverty is deepening, with women and children bearing the brunt. This is particularly striking when factoring in limited access to education and basic infrastructure. 94

The struggle to slow climate change hangs in the balance as well. The decisions being made in cities today can lock in high energy consumption and carbon emissions for decades to come. If current trends continue, the cities of the global South will account for more than half of global urban carbon emissions by 2050.95 And their populations will face some of the gravest environmental risks and impacts of climate change. Low-lying and coastal cities, especially in Africa and Asia, will be flooded by rising seas and battered by more violent storms, and they will have only minimal capacity to adapt.

Voices: Rob McDonald on short- and long-term climate solutions

The stakes—for our economy, our planet, and our common future—could not be clearer. Unsustainable, unequal cities pose risks for everyone, including corrosive poverty and inequality, faltering productivity, paralyzing congestion, toxic air and water, and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change that put millions of people in harm’s way.

Scholars have identified pervasive, deepening urban social and spatial inequalities as the crisis of our times, which must be tackled if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.96 Many leaders and policy experts recognize that current strategies and practices of city building are not working. Large cities and their political leaders have never received more international attention than they do today.

The 2015 Paris Agreement recognized cities as crucial to curbing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. SDG 11, which 193 countries adopted that same year, commits them to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”97 Yet implementation has been spotty. Fewer than two in five countries that adopted SDGs have explicit national strategies for cities, and only a handful tackle both human development and climate action.98

Numerous networks have emerged to help cities share knowledge, create peer pressure, and grow in more sustainable ways, including the C40 Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI, United Cities and Local Governments, and others. The Habitat III conference on cities, held in Quito, Ecuador promoted “a new model of urban development that is able to integrate all facets of sustainable development to promote equity, welfare, and shared prosperity.”99 The text from Habitat III—the New Urban Agenda—lays out a vision for cities for the next 20 years.100 Networks and conferences have showcased problems and solutions, especially for large cities that have the staff and capacity to take part.

However, the fastest-growing cities confronting the gravest challenges—which include most small and medium cities in the global South—have hardly benefited. Between 2018 and 2030, medium-sized cities with populations between 1 and 5 million will see the most population growth.101 Cities with fewer than 10 million people will likely generate three-quarters of global economic growth. That is a larger slice of the global economy than all the megacities in the global North and South make up today.102

The fastest-growing cities of the global South will need to simultaneously build infrastructure, fight poverty and inequality, and protect the environment. They will have to contend with the glaring inequality that colonizers helped cement in place when they concentrated infrastructure and services where privileged classes lived and neglected everyone else. Many cities will be hobbled by scant resources and limited planning capacity. Today inertia prevails, taking them further and further into uncharted and hazardous terrain with no clear pathway out.

On top of this, the tools, frameworks, and methods available to guide them are inadequate at best and irrelevant at worst. Most were designed for richer cities—at different stages of industrial, technological, and institutional development—which could count on economic growth and urbanization going hand in hand. For many rapidly urbanizing poorer countries, this no longer holds true.103 We are losing the battle to build the cities we need, even as the consequences loom ever larger and more ominously.104

A radical transformation is needed

Our research explored how this could be achieved. Over the past five years, World Resources Institute (WRI) has studied this question:

As the world continues to urbanize, how can growing cities in the global South ensure equitable access to urban services and opportunities and, in doing so, build prosperity and better environmental quality for all?

The World Resources Report: Towards a More Equal City series provides answers (see Figure 1). It explains the causes and geography of the urban services divide, the lack of planning, and the patterns of urban growth that have fueled it. It looks at the repercussions of leaving under-served populations to fend for themselves. It sheds light on the need for government leadership to address market failures and on how investments in services and infrastructure can pay for themselves many times over. It identifies key sectors that cities should prioritize and strategies for achieving the best results. It lays out a road map for making sweeping, durable, and transformative changes in how cities are built, managed, and experienced and in restoring their power to lead societies to a more humane and hopeful future.

Box 1 | Even for an affluent family outside of Nairobi, access to services is not a given

Andrew and his family live relatively well in the Ongata Rongai, a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya. Working as a self-employed energy management consultant, Andrew earns between US$776 and $1,455 per month, enough to have a housekeeper and her son live with his family. When he travels to work, he usually takes a combination of tuktuk (a semiformalized three-wheeled motorized vehicle service) and bus to get to the center of the city, which can take three to four hours. Roundtrip, Andrew can spend up to $13 per day on all transport costs.

In Andrew’s peripheral neighborhood, water is distributed privately and power outages of up to five hours are common. None of the homes are connected to the city sewer system, and some families dump waste directly into the nearby river. As the city continues to expand outward, Andrew has concerns about the government’s ability to keep up with service provision and infrastructure for its residents.

Andrew has witnessed big changes in Nairobi since he grew up in the city more than two decades ago. Multiple residential units have replaced single homes, traffic has grown all over the city, shopping malls have proliferated, and new construction has pushed the boundaries of the city farther and farther out. However, goods, services, jobs, and popular activities have remained in the center. Andrew would someday like to live in Kilimani, which is near Nairobi’s center and is easily accessible without a car. But housing in Kilimani is expensive, and Andrew does not see himself moving there for several years.

Figure B1.1 | Andrew’s self-constructed home is located in the urban periphery of Nairobi

Picture credit: Edith Alusa-Bosire, 2016.

Note: These vignettes are based on in-depth interviews with urban residents conducted in seven countries grappling with the effects of urbanization (Brazil, China, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mexico, and Nigeria).


To understand the challenges facing the cities of the global South, our research team developed a new approach and created a new body of knowledge on how cities can achieve durable, transformative change.

First, we analyzed how cities and their economies are projected to grow during the next two decades.105 We focused on the divergence of economic growth and urbanization, categorizing cities according to their current income, projected population and economic growth, and potential to escape unsustainable patterns of urban development. We found that the cities likely to face the biggest challenges are in Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, with smaller clusters in Central and Latin America and Eastern Europe (see Box 2). We revealed these findings in the series’ framing paper at the Habitat III conference in 2016, and we turned our attention to the stark contrast between the few who enjoy multiple benefits from access to urban services and opportunities and the vast majority who do not.

Second, we drove the research from the perspective of how people experience the city every day. We documented people’s struggles in seven cities of the global South (several of these cities feature in boxes throughout the text of this report), showing how people’s experiences depend on the services they have or do not have. We found that reliable, affordable services, jobs, and land tenure depend on how cities plan and manage land markets, and that services are key to productivity, especially for vulnerable informal workers and small-scale entrepreneurs. We developed seven detailed papers on transport, water, sanitation, energy, and housing, as well as recommendations for making them more accessible to all. These thematic papers focus on specific approaches and sectoral interventions that cities have implemented to address deep inequalities in access to urban services.106 They highlight strategies that have worked in cities of the global South and offer insights on key conditions that enabled positive change. Each thematic paper provides ample evidence that more equal cities are possible, and that greater equity can benefit everyone.

Third, we found that equity in access to core services and opportunities is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for urban prosperity. Cities need change at a deeper level—in their governance and decision-making processes, power dynamics, institutions, and priorities of political leaders. This change, we argue, cannot be incremental. It must be transformative with sustained, cross-sectoral, citywide benefits. We used seven citywide case studies to uncover how this kind of change was triggered, advanced, and institutionalized in cities that attempted reforms.107 These case studies do not describe “best practices”; rather, they document processes of change, highlighting the factors and actors that triggered, enabled, or inhibited the change at various points in a long-term process. We start from an assumption that transformative urban change will confront difficulties, setbacks, and false starts.

Finally, this report synthesizes the entire effort thus far, offering lessons from the complete research series and homing in on a set of crucial transformations in mindsets and actions needed for citywide transformative change, with priority actions under each. They are as follows:

  • Transformation 1: Infrastructure Design and Delivery—Prioritizing the Vulnerable
  • Transformation 2: Service Provision Models—Partnering with Alternative Service Providers
  • Transformation 3: Data Collection Practices—Improving Local Data through Community Engagement
  • Transformation 4: Informal Urban Employment—Recognizing and Supporting Informal Workers
  • Transformation 5: Financing and Subsidies—Increasing Investment and Targeting Funds Innovatively
  • Transformation 6: Urban Land Management—Promoting Transparency and Integrated Spatial Planning
  • Transformation 7: Governance and Institutions—Creating Diverse Coalitions and Alignment

Figure 1 lays out the architecture of the entire Towards a More Equal City series.

Figure 1 | This synthesis report draws from seven thematic papers and seven city case studies

Source: Authors.

Box 2 | Towards a More Equal City developed city categories that are regionally clustered

We developed an analytical approach to categorize cities as struggling, emerging, thriving, or stabilizing (see Figure B2.1), based on current income levels and whether their economic growth is likely to keep pace with their population growth between 2015 and 2030.

This categorization allowed us to identify the cities facing the most urgent challenges and to consider approaches best suited for these contexts. We focus especially on struggling and emerging cities with the fastest-growing populations, the lowest incomes, and the fewest resources. These are cities where the scale of investment needed in infrastructure and services creates an important opportunity. With the right enabling conditions, they can alter their development trajectory.

Figure B2.1 | Cities are categorized as struggling, emerging, thriving, or stabilizing

Notes: n= 769 cities with population above 400,000 inhabitants. The Oxford Economics database covers the United Nations list of urban agglomerations with at least 750,000 inhabitants and some other “strategically”important cities such as country capitals; GDP = gross domestic product.

Source: Beard et al. (2016), based on data from Oxford Economics (2016); Oxford Economics, 2014: 4

The report is organized as follows: Chapter 2 analyzes the current nature of urbanization, how it diverges from the past, and what distinct challenges it presents. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the urban services divide and how bridging the divide can lead to transformative change in cities. Chapters 6 through 12 offer specific transformations to help foster a more equal city, with priority actions and tables showing roles for key actors to make progress on these. Chapter 13 concludes with a vision and call to action for urban change agents.