Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities

Image: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

Image: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

World Resources Report

Chapter 3

Why Access to Urban Services Matters

The urban services divide affects every aspect of people’s lives. Those who are under-served by core services like housing, water, sanitation, transport, and energy face higher burdens and fewer opportunities in the short and long term than those who are better served or can provide for themselves.

3.1 The Urban Services Divide and Its Consequences

To pursue transformative change that is fundamentally more people centered, cities must depart from business as usual. This means starting with the lived experience of people and using this as the metric of success rather than focusing only on income, carbon emissions, or another narrow metric.

It is for this reason that we focus on the urban services divide—the gap between the “better served,” who have access to good-quality services, and the “under-served,” who do not. This gap lies at the core of rising poverty and inequity in cities (Box 4). Spotty, unequal access to core services is not just a symptom of urban inequality; it is a key cause of it because it widens the gap between “haves” and “have-nots,” increases expenditures, reduces the income people can save, and curtails their opportunities for a better life.


Across countries of the global South, urban residents spend almost 25 to 50 percent of their household income on basic needs such as housing, energy, transport, water, and sanitation.162 If these core urban services were more accessible and affordable, these households could instead spend this money on education, health care, and increasing their standard of living. Figure 9 contrasts the daily lives of better-served and under-served groups and highlights how the urban services divide creates more opportunities for the better served and greater burdens for the under-served in terms of lost time and expense.

Box 4 | Existing estimates of access to urban services provide an incomplete picture

Past estimates show that up to 70 percent of the urban population in the global South is reported to be under-served by one or more core urban services: housing, water and sanitation, energy, and transport (see Figure B4.1 for sectoral examples).a For example, in 2012, more than 482 million urban residents lacked access to modern fuels; in 2017, 110 million lacked access to electricity and 615 million did not have reliable, clean water.b These global averages mask extreme deprivations across urban neighborhoods, cities, and countries, and they only consider the magnitude of access to these services, not their quality, reliability, or affordability for low-income urban residents. These estimates need to be improved and standardized to measure inequities in both the quantity and quality of access. Doing so will also help track progress against the Sustainable Development Goal targets. Globally, two in three urban dwellers in low-income countries live in slums, which are defined as places where people lack access to most of these services. Although this number is already high, the percentage of the urban population that lives in slums goes up to 77 percent in Mozambique and 88 percent in Sudan, to give just two examples.c

Figure B4.1 | Billions of urban dwellers lack reliable, affordable, and safe access to these core services and opportunities offered by cities

Note: Analysis from the World Resources Report: Towards a More Equal City, 2016 to 2019.

Figure Sources: a. World Bank, 2018b; b. World Bank, 2016a; c. Venter et al., 2019; d. WRI, 2018; Mitlin et al., 2019; e. WRI, 2018; Satterthwaite et al., 2019; f. ILO, 2018b; g. Mahendra and Seto, 2019; Seto et al., 2012.

Box Sources: a. Beard et al. (2016), based on data analyzed from PovcalNet database in 2015; Watson, 2009: 183; b. WHO and UNICEF, 2017; World Bank, 2016a; c. World Bank, 2018b.

Note: This is a conceptual diagram.
a. This figure is based on data from the World Development Indicators (2018b) on only the global population of slum dwellers in urban areas, and is therefore a minimum estimate of the under-served. A slum household is defined as a group of individuals living under the same roof lacking one or more of the following conditions: access to improved water, access to improved sanitation, sufficient living area, and durability of housing. Not only are urban slum populations underestimated, the under-served in cities comprise many low-income people who may not live in slums.

Source: Authors

3.2 The Pernicious Effects of Self-Provision

“Self-provision” is one direct consequence of scant and unreliable core city services. It exacerbates poverty and inequality while undermining the economic prosperity and environmental sustainability of the city as a whole.

Urban dwellers in the global South who are under-served by municipal infrastructure must rely on informal arrangements to meet basic needs.163 Boxes 5 and 6 illustrate how families in African cities such as Accra, Ghana, and Lagos live through these challenges. In the absence of municipal services, residents of all income groups must make their own arrangements to gain access to housing, transport, water, sanitation, and energy. Because it can be inconvenient and expensive, self-provision harms everyone. It imposes high costs not only on individuals but also on society in the form of lost productivity, higher expenditures, environmental degradation, and poor health. Without access to clean fuel or sewage treatment facilities, people burn wood or charcoal for cooking and illegally empty pit latrines directly into rivers. Whether they are improvising, bribing, spending most of their income, or finding other ways to get what they need, making informal arrangements in unregulated markets adds extra time, cost, and uncertainty. Private service providers may be informal workers with unrecognized businesses, and the quality of services they offer may fall outside safe or acceptable standards.

Households that experience unreliable core service delivery but have sufficient economic means are better equipped to fend for themselves or get what they need through both formal and informal markets. If the power goes out frequently, they can purchase generators and the fuel needed to run them. If there is no train or bus, or service is unreliable, they can drive themselves or hire a car to pick them up. If the tap water smells bad or makes them sick, they can buy bottled water in bulk or drill their own bore well, as many gated communities often do. Those with better access have more opportunities for a productive, prosperous, and healthy life.

But for low-income people, having to self-provide can impose crippling burdens. For them, the quest for essential services can crowd out everything else. Often those who are least able to pay are actually forced to spend the most, even in absolute terms, for the same essential services. People who lack safe running water may end up paying fifty times as much for bottled water as they would for piped tap water.164 Families may have little left for other needs, such as food and education.

As more people with sufficient means find their own solutions and engage in self-provision by acquiring services through the market or personal networks, inequalities in access to services widen. They demand less of decision-makers, which erodes the incentive for public agencies to improve service delivery for everyone and undermines local accountability. The outcome of self-provision is a negative feedback loop of citizen resistance to any municipal finance reforms entailing higher service fees or taxes to improve urban services for everyone. This continues to perpetuate inequities in access to services and handicaps decision-makers and other urban change agents in fulfilling essential functions.165

Box 5 | Lack of piped water in expanding outskirts of Accra increases household water stress

Victor lives with his family in Amrahia, a suburb of Accra, Ghana, that has grown rapidly in recent years, outpacing the establishment of basic services and infrastructure such as roads or a water distribution system. Like many families in Amrahia, Victor’s family struggles every day to get good-quality water. Victor buys water from a local vendor and collects rainwater when he can, but the supply is inconsistent. From the private vendors, Victor fills up his 2,000-liter plastic water tank, which lasts approximately three weeks and costs about US$7.50, significantly more than water provided by the public system that does not reach his home. But sometimes the vendors take a long time to fill up his tank or refuse to provide the water, in which case Victor drives his taxi around town with a 25-liter can in search of water.

Leftover wastewater from cooking and bathing is sometimes used for the toilet, which is connected to a septic tank. Sometimes it is just thrown outside his house, posing threats to local water quality. Victor’s family is one of many facing high household water stress year-round. They fear droughts and other weather-related disasters and other emergencies that could threaten their supply. As the community grows, residents hope that the city will install piped water and a drainage system to all homes.

Figure B5.1 | Bottled or sachet water is commonly sold in the under-served neighborhoods of Accra

Picture credit: World Bank

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).

Box 6 | Energy access proves a daily struggle for low-income households in Lagos

For 29 years, Mrs. Arowojobe has lived in Pedro, a popular neighborhood for low-income families in Lagos, Nigeria. An estimated 70 percent of the population of Lagos lives in this type of neighborhood, with 66 percent of residents lacking secure land tenure. Only 15 percent of households are connected to an electrical grid, and there is no centralized sewage or wastewater management system for the city. Mrs. Arowojobe, 49, and her husband have two children and live on a combined income of roughly US$300 per month. Ten years ago, Mrs. Arowojobe left a job as a nurse in a private school to open a small frozen fish and meat stand outside her house. She enjoys the flexibility that this provides her and the time it allows for her to spend with her children. But sporadic access to electricity makes living and working difficult.

She currently pays the city utility, the National Electric Power Authority, a fixed monthly rate of $25, even though she can only rely on two hours of electricity daily. Blackouts that last up to three consecutive days are common.

Mrs. Arowojobe also struggles to obtain enough fuel to cook for her family. She normally travels two kilometers to refill her 12.5-kilogram container with propane every three months, which costs her nearly $18. She can purchase kerosene as a backup from hawkers outside her house, but she says, “I like the gas cooker because the kerosene stove darkens my pot and emits smoke that chokes me and makes my eyes shed tears.” Mrs. Arowojobe urges her kids to stay in school, where they do not have to breathe in the smoke from cooking and have better access to electricity.

Figure B6.1 | Mrs. Arowojobe at her home in Pedro, Lagos

Picture credit: Abdulmutalib Yussuf, 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).

3.3 The Geography and Spatial Dimension of the Urban Services Divide

Where people fall on the spectrum from better served to under-served typically depends on where they live. This is no accident; instead, it is a result of the choices being made in the fast-growing cities of the global South. Urban areas are expected to triple in size between 2000 and 2030, and in these cities, much of the growth taking place now is basically unsupervised. It is not being planned or regulated by governments prioritizing the long-term interests of the majority of the population. Unmanaged urban expansion means large, new sections of cities are being built without services. Neighborhoods and informal settlements within cities have matured with no services and none coming any time soon. And once these patterns of development have taken hold, it is prohibitively costly and incredibly difficult—perhaps even impossible—to fix or reverse them.

Voices: Christo Venter on more equitable urban mobility

One problem is that most of this haphazard, unplanned growth occurs not in a city’s center but rather at its periphery. This is true of both formally constructed buildings and informal settlements. It happens because affordable housing inside cities is so scarce that lower-income people in particular are driven either to informal settlements or to peripheral areas where land and housing are cheaper. This fuels outward expansion, which, in turn, makes extending core services to these locations more expensive. Empirical evidence shows that, as cities spread and density falls, the per capita cost of providing public services soars and the likelihood of being linked to services falls. In Indian and African cities, access to multiple urban services drops sharply just five kilometers from the city center.166 A look at India’s Bengaluru metropolitan region illustrates how the fastest-growing areas in the periphery have the highest proportions of households lacking access to basic services such as piped water, sewer connections, and drainage (Figure 10). The thematic paper on urban expansion shows similar data for Mexico City, Mexico, and highlights the spatial inequality seen in cities today while presenting new analysis of urban growth patterns over time for nearly 500 cities.167

Figure 10 | Inadequate basic services in the rapidly expanding Bengaluru metropolitan area leave many without access

Notes: BBMP = Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (the municipal corporation of the Greater Bengaluru metropolitan area); BDA = Bangalore Development Authority. Bengaluru is the new name of the city formerly known as Bangalore. Some city agencies retain the name Bangalore.

Sources: Mahendra and Seto (2019), based on data from the 2011 Census of India, the Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, and the Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited as well as Global Land Survey and Landsat (U.S. Geological Survey) images for 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2015. Contributed by WRI India.

In addition to living without services, lower-income people in outlying areas must often travel long distances to find work (see Box 7 for an example from Porto Alegre, Brazil).

But urban peripheries are not the only areas lacking infrastructure and services. Informal and unplanned areas inside cities have also been growing denser—and without service provision—as people crowd into any housing they can find close to employment.168 These residents often depend on fragile informal services to meet basic needs and demand can easily outstrip supply. The poor, who may have no choice about where they can live, pay exorbitant prices as a result. For example, the roughly 300,000 people packed into Mukuru, one of the largest informal settlements in Nairobi, face a “poverty penalty” for drinking water. They pay over four times more per cubic meter than those who live in formal areas of the city.169 Up to 70 percent of urban residents in the global South rely on informal arrangements like these to procure core services.170 Many also lack access to quality education, secure employment, and health care.

Unplanned outward expansion and informal settlement stem from a shortage of affordable housing inside cities, caused or exacerbated by weak urban planning and land governance, corruption, onerous and outdated regulations, and real estate and financial markets that serve private interests rather than the larger community. These problems are detailed in Part III, Transformation 6, of this report, which discusses how urban land management, spatial planning, and land governance practices must shift to reduce spatial inequalities.

Without careful planning and effective, integrated policies, fast-growing cities in low- and middle-income countries will struggle to reverse these trends. Unequal, inadequate infrastructure and services will perpetuate a vicious cycle that becomes harder and harder to escape. The urban services divide encumbers cities in ways that sap their economic vitality and raise the very real risk that, instead of propelling nations towards prosperity, rapidly growing cities will instead hold them back.

The Towards a More Equal City series dives deep into ways that cities can break this cycle. It explores the many consequences of the urban services divide for entire cities and their most vulnerable populations. It explains the causes and geography of the urban services divide, including 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 and sheds light on the need for government leadership to address market failures. It points to the potential for investment in services and infrastructure to pay for themselves many times over, identifies key sectors to prioritize, and lays out strategies for achieving the best results. This report highlights numerous examples of how cities can provide access to services and opportunities more sustainably and equitably.

Box 7 | Long, unsafe commutes plague Porto Alegre residents

Jaime, a 51-year-old resident of Porto Alegre, Brazil, earns roughly US$378 per month as a supermarket supplier, but he has a long and sometimes dangerous commute to work. His job at Seradil, located in the Gravataí neighborhood, is 16 kilometers away from his home in Alvorada. To get there, Jaime walks to the bus stop, waits 20 to 30 minutes, catches an overcrowded bus for $0.97, then walks another 17 minutes to Seradil. The family spends a quarter of his income, roughly $93, on transport a month.

The cost is one problem. Safety is another. “There are many assaults,” Jaime says. “We suffer almost daily assaults. We have to give thanks to God on the days when we are not robbed. They enter as ordinary passengers and take everything . . . because . . . some parts of the way are remote, with nobody around. Time and again, there are deaths, too, because sometimes they shoot, hit, and attack people.” He continues, “Our security is zero. From one to 10, it is zero. It does not exist. We come down to the bus stop and we have to walk a lot in an empty area, by the highway, with the cars passing just next to us, because there are no sidewalks. It lacks infrastructure and structure—lighting, security, it lacks everything.”

With the bus system so insecure, Jaime’s family is hoping to buy a car soon, trusting that it will improve their quality of life. They already own one but want to upgrade. “It is the dream of everyone, right?” he says. “To improve life a little bit. We’re trying to save money for a down payment and buy a car a little bigger, a little better.” More cars on the road will increase traffic and congestion for the city as a whole, however, leading to potentially longer commutes for all and higher emissions.

Figure B7.1 | Jaime waits at a makeshift bus stop to get to work

Picture credit: Mariana Gil, 2016.

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