Introduction Introduction Chapter 5 Chapter 5
Chapter 1 Chapter 1 Chapter 6 Chapter 6
Chapter 2 Chapter 2 Notes for Indicators Notes
Chapter 3 Chapter 3 Notes for boxes Notes for boxes
Chapter 4 Chapter 4 Indicators Indicators
CHAPTER 4 Printer Friendly printer friendly version
Chapter 1 The Social and Sustainable Use of Space

Urban Growth and Sustainable Use of Space

Density, Urban Sprawl and Use of Land

The Discreet Charm of Suburbia

Sprawl and Peri-urbanization

To Sprawl or Not to Sprawl

Realistic Policies for Urban Expansion

The [Third Urban] Forum placed great emphasis on planning as a tool for urban development and environmental management, and as a means of preventing future slum growth.41

Realistic Policies for Urban Expansion

What will it take to put some sort of order into large-scale urban expansion? Policies may be directed at: a) rural-urban migration; b) the distribution of urban populations among cities; and c) the process of urban development in individual cities.(42)

Preventing rural-urban migration is not only very difficult but counter-productive (see Chapter 3). Few of the policies directed at altering the distribution of population among cities have had much success. The remaining approach is to take a proactive stance to shaping the future growth of individual cities:

“The key issue facing public-sector decision makers—at the local, national and international levels—is not whether or not urban expansion will take place, but rather what is likely to be the scale of urban expansion and what needs to be done now to adequately prepare for it. . . . The message is quite clear—developing country cities should be making serious plans for urban expansion, including planning for where this expansion would be most easily accommodated, how infrastructure to accommodate and serve the projected expansion is to be provided and paid for, and how this can be done with minimum environmental impact.”(43)

Given the economic, social and environmental implications of the inevitable explosive growth of urban populations in developing countries, the absence of a coordinated proactive approach is astounding. This lack of attention is the product of several factors, including politicians’ short planning horizons; governments’ unwillingness to accept urbanization as a positive trend and to prepare for orderly urban expansion; planners’ preference for ambitious and utopian master-plans (that, ultimately, have little prospect of being implemented); and the failure of international organizations to push this agenda.(44)

Instead of making realistic minimal preparations for urban growth, many authorities simply hope against hope that their overcrowded cities will stop growing, or they undertake master plans that take many years to complete and are usually shelved soon after.(45)

The inevitable growth of developing-country cities and their peri-urban surroundings, demands a coordinated and proactive approach (see Box 21). Within the overall framework, there must be a new set of realistic, equitable and enforceable regulatory regimes. In this process, care should be taken not to disturb sensitive lands and watersheds. Provisions for land, infrastructure and services for the poor should be a key concern. The local population should be involved in any discussion of future growth in order to guarantee people’s rights while increasing the success rate of planning efforts. The discussions in Chapter 3 concerning the land needs of the poor assume particular relevance in this context.



The Bloomberg Administration in New York City is unveiling plans to deal with medium- and long-term needs of a growing metropolis.  Amongst many other projects, it is developing a “strategic land use plan” to deal with a city with a projected population of 9 million people. Among the priorities is the reclamation of 1,700 acres of polluted land and their transformation into environmentally sound sites for schools, apartments and parks. Plans also involve the improvement of commuting, water supply, sanitation and air pollution.

The city used its failed bid for the 2012 Olympic Games as a springboard for the sort of longer-range planning that local governments rarely have the resources or vision to develop. The fact that New York City is not empowered to annex neighbouring cities has encouraged it to make zoning changes and recycle land in order to promote greater density.  The initiative is being led by the administration’s recently created Office of Long-term Planning and Sustainability, composed of members of 15 city agencies, plus scientists, academics, neighbourhood activists and labour leaders.

These long-range plans will evidently have to give explicit consideration to the possible effects of global warming on the city, where 8 million people—and several million more in the greater conurbation—now live at or close to sea level.

Sorting out the land issues in future urban growth is but one aspect of the question, though an important one. A broader political and spatial approach, within a longer time frame, is also required to deal with other sustainability and organizational issues. Sprawl and peri-urbanization tend to fragment urban space in unpredictable ways, producing nuclei of different sizes and densities, with a variety of common or unique problems. The solution lies not so much in prescribing the relative density of urban areas as in good local governance that can guide urban development, and yield appropriate densities.

In the current situation, fragmentation of the urban territory brings both administrative inefficiency and environmental setbacks. The boundaries of the city’s administration rarely coincide with its actual area of influence. In the case of larger cities, this area usually extends over neighbouring subregions, which may include smaller cities, as well as peri-urban and rural areas.

Without some sort of regional entity, the administration of key services, such as water and transport, that cut across different boundaries is very difficult. By the same token, fragmentation breaks up the contiguity that natural processes require. Fragmentation also makes it difficult to protect ecologically fragile areas or regulate for environmental integrity.(46)From a technical standpoint, dealing effectively with the social and environmental realities of city regions requires constantly updated information and analysis, which most urban areas do not have (see Box 22).



The population field is integral to understanding the needs and providing solutions for city regions. Even in the absence of an appropriate administrative entity covering an entire region, policymakers can use satellite images and geographic information systems (GIS), together with demographic data, to provide accurate information on population size and density, as well as areas of urban expansion, slum growth and needs for environmental protection.

In Ecuador and Honduras, UNFPA has supported post-census technical training so that local agencies learn how best to analyse census data at the disaggregated level for planning purposes. This includes utilizing tract-level census data in combination with simple population projections to better estimate the future demand for various kinds of services.  Small- to medium-sized municipalities and decentralized areas of growth are most likely to need technical support in order to apply such tools.

These data can be used in conjunction with information on elevation, slope, soils, land cover, critical eco­systems and hazard risks to identify areas in which future settlement should be promoted or avoided.  In order to be useful within a GIS, census data should be processed and made available at the most spatially disaggregated level possible, so that they can be used at a variety of scales from regional to local.

Cities have a huge impact on their surrounding region but, in most cases, do not or cannot take responsibility for managing it.(47)Common issues among the scattered nuclei of a fragmented urban system demand a wider outlook. Environmental degradation and poverty are part of the broader sweep of economic, social and demographic changes associated with peri-urbanization. They have to be addressed in coordinated and proactive efforts.

The key question, therefore, is who will take the initiative in an urban world marked by these growth processes? The suggestion made here is to approach the organization and regulation of spatial processes that affect social and environmental well-being from a regional, rather than a strictly urban perspective.(48)The concept of “city-regions” is useful in this new social, economic and political order. It provides an easily understandable starting point in advocating for a more coordinated and effective approach to dealing with the growing problems of sprawling urban and peri-urban areas,(49)and on behalf of the urban poor as an essential and dynamic element in urban development.

It is important that the city-region be seen, not as another supra-local entity, which would make it even less accessible to poor people, but as a form of cooperation and negotiation between adjacent local governments with different needs and priorities. This is obviously necessary to address the basic needs of the population, to manage natural resources and wastes, and to deal with all the other complications resulting from unregulated and rapid urban expansion.