Sustainable Cities Require Equitable Access to Services, Report Finds

Rapidly growing cities in the Global South need to focus on providing equitable access to basic services if they hope to achieve prosperity and environmental sustainability in the future, a report from the World Resources Institute finds.

Released ahead of Habitat III – United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development this week in Quito, Ecuador, the report, Towards a More Equal City: Framing the Challenges and Opportunities (48 pages, PDF), argues that if rapidly growing cities are to become sustainable and livable for all, the global community must first recognize that sub-Saharan Africa  and South and Southeast Asia have the highest rates of urbanization; that urbanization is occurring in more low-income countries than in the past; that the share of poor people living in urban areas is on the rise worldwide; and that cities in the Global South have the fewest public resources per capita. What's more, the challenge of providing urban residents with housing, water, energy, and transportation services is likely to grow as the share of poor people living in urban areas increases.

The first in a series of reports, Framing the Challenges categorizes cities based on their  projected population growth between 2015 and 2030 and suggests that providing equitable access to core services could lead to more economically productive and environmentally sustainable cities — in part because existing gaps in urban services affect the health, safety, and productivity of all residents, but especially the poor, whose reliance on the informal economy limits them to irregular employment and puts them at risk of abuse. "Inadequate service provision undermines people's ability to be economically productive," the report states, "and challenges them to fend for themselves in inefficient and costly ways that risk harming the environment."

To build the thriving cities of the future, the report argues, transformative change is needed, and the essential elements of such change include a strong coalition of change agents with a shared vision, adequate financial resources to implement ambitious reforms, and long-term political commitment to city-wide transformation. Over the next year, WRI will publish a series of working papers focused on housing, energy, transportation, water and sewage, and land use and urban expansion issues.

"Urbanization presents a challenge, but also offers an opportunity to find new ways of planning, building, and governing cities," said Victoria A. Beard, director of research at the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities and lead author of the report. "For many rapidly urbanizing cities, the challenge is to deliver quality core services that are affordable, reach more people, and are less resource-intensive than traditional solutions."