Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities

Image: EMBARQ Brasil

Image: EMBARQ Brasil

World Resources Report

Chapter 5

A New Approach Highlighting Seven Cross-Sectoral Transformations

Cities have made progress by transforming practices related to urban infrastructure design and delivery, service provision, data collection, employment, finance, land management, and governance.

This synthesis report shows how cities can halt the downward spiral created by the urban services divide and the burdens it imposes. Through numerous examples, it highlights seven transformations to alter current trajectories and galvanize action to achieve more equal, prosperous, and sustainable cities. Making these transformations can narrow inequities, improve access to services, and yield cascading benefits that reach across sectors and institutions, improving life for a broad swath of the population.

Many cities have demonstrated new solutions and innovative approaches, as we have documented in this report, but although organizations and governments are piloting ideas and trying new approaches in fits and starts—in one sector, one neighborhood—the size of the problem and the momentum behind traditional ways of doing things have been daunting. Five years of research on multiple urban sectors, case study analysis, and stakeholder consultations have resulted in essential lessons about what it takes to reach transformative change. By pulling together lessons learned from cities that have made progress on narrowing the urban services divide and initiated transformative change, we identified seven essential shifts, or “transformations” as we call them (see Figure 15). These 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

The knowledge, insights, and guidance they offer are transferable, even though every city’s story—the set of social, economic, and political constraints and opportunities it confronts—is unique. These lessons distilled through our work are broad enough to be adapted to different local contexts and needs. Depending on their level of development and capacity, cities may start with any of these. These transformations are not mutually exclusive, and in the discussion we identify some of the links between them, but each on its own represents a significant shift in mindsets and practice.


The seven transformations highlighted in Figure 15 are discussed in detail in the following sections with examples of how cities have brought them to fruition. The transformations aim to reimagine service provision, include the excluded, and enable change for more equal, prosperous, and sustainable cities.

Figure 15 | Seven transformations can achieve more equal, prosperous, and sustainable cities

Source: Authors.

5.1 The Big Ideas Underpinning the Transformations

The seven transformations fall under three overarching ideas:

  1. Reimagine service provision. This involves transforming the design and delivery of infrastructure and services to prioritize under-served populations, address backlogs, minimize carbon lock-in, and anticipate future risks. Recognizing that large numbers of people access informal housing, water, sanitation, energy, and transport through alternative providers, cities in the global South must transform their urban service provision models by partnering with small, informal, and semiformalized service providers, at least in the short and medium term. These providers fill a key gap in parts of the city plagued by spatial inequalities in access to urban services and opportunities. They also serve low-income people who cannot afford urban services offered by the market or the public sector.
  2. Include the excluded. This requires examining the impact of the urban services divide on under-served and vulnerable groups in the city and taking actions to ameliorate it. This can only be achieved by improving local data and transforming data collection practices to better engage impacted communities. Credible and open local data now becoming available demonstrably improves the diagnosis of challenges, policies to solve them, and the accountability of decision-makers. Including the excluded also requires recognizing and assessing the vastly underestimated contribution of informal workers to urban and national economies. They represent over half the urban workforce in the global South, and they are among those most vulnerable because their livelihoods and productivity directly depend on their access to urban services and opportunities. Transforming employment practices to support informal workers and improve their working conditions is in the best economic interest of cities.
  3. Enable change. This requires preparing the ground for transformative change through solutions related to financing, planning, and governance. Financing must be transformed so that higher and better-targeted financial investment can get money where it is needed most while inviting participation from local communities who are best aware of the needs on the ground. Urban land management practices must be transformed so that land markets are more transparent and spatial planning is integrated with delivery of services, goal driven, and coordinated between regional, local, and neighborhood scales. Last but not least, to sustain change, governance and institutions must be transformed to create new coalitions for change, including public sector actors, civil society, and other local groups, supported by well-aligned policies at different levels of government.

Clustered under these three overarching ideas, readers can find each of the transformations explained in detail in the following chapters 6–12. Under each transformation, we first describe the current bottlenecks that exist today, discussing what must change and why. Next, we describe the corresponding priority actions that can help unclog one or more of these bottlenecks. We discuss how cities around the world have seen significant breakthroughs despite difficult circumstances when implementing these actions. The examples demonstrate that while challenges are daunting, progress is possible and there are concrete lessons that can be drawn from experiences elsewhere. For each transformation, we further elaborate the steps that different actors active in urban areas can take to implement and make these transformations a reality.