Good ideas

The impressive skylines of major business centres distract from the fact that, at the foot of the spectacular glass towers, some people live in desperate poverty. In a recent report, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) argues that children in urban settlements are often worse off than their counterparts in rural areas. Cities are better equipped with educational institutions, health services and power grids than villages of course, but urban infrastructure is typically not keeping up with urban growth in developing countries and emerging markets.

By Eva-Maria Verfürth

Today, half of the world population lives in cities and suburbs. Agglomerations in Asia and Africa are growing fast as millions of people flee from rural poverty. Many of them, however, are denied the amenities of urban life.

According to UNICEF, about one third of all city dwellers worldwide live in slums. Their homes are makeshift huts on plots they normally do not even own. In most cases, they have access neither to water pipes nor to power lines. Paved roads at their door remain a dream.

Many municipal authorities are plainly overburdened, and some are pro­bably not very interested in improving matters. After all, most marginalised people are not registered. They are not entitled to vote and do not pay taxes. Huge informal settlements in many continents are living proof of societies excluding a large share of their people.

Municipal leaders must act if they want their towns to be liveable in the long run. Entire conurbations are at risk of choking on their own growth. Massive infrastructure investments are needed, and all new projects will have to rise to two daunting challenges: making do with limited natural resources and reaching all inhabitants in an agglomeration.

Both is easier said than done. The western model is hardly worth copying. Western cities tend to squander resources. Their waste water management, for instance, depends on huge volumes of fresh water. Their transport systems – especially in North America – are designed for cars.

Every city has to find its own solutions, adapting to both the natural ge­ography and the national polity. Two matters are of crucial relevance: Municipal authorities need well-defined jurisdictions and they must give their people a say. Devolution of powers from central governments is important, for otherwise cities will remain unable to implement large projects, plan budgets and – most important – involve citizens in urban planning. The people on the ground normally understand best what they need, and unless they cooperate, even very good ideas will prove worthless. In many cases, urban leaders would do better to support the self-help capacities of urban communities than to keep inventing ever more grand infrastructure schemes.

Cities, moreover, can benefit from partnerships with other cities. Many local governments have implemented ideas prone to inspire others. Brazil, for example, developed new ways to enhance people’s mobility – and its model of fast bus lines is being copied in places like Lagos and Delhi. Thailand has managed to provide sanitation to all its people. And in Vietnam, urban renewal has relied on community participation in innovative ways. Creative solutions of this sort can make a difference, shaping a more liveable future for their residents – who, according to UN estimates, will account for two thirds of humankind by 2050.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.