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Urban Planning and Poverty in Developing Countries

By Eric Belsky

Image of slum housing in Ecuador.
Slum in Ecuador.
The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University recently completed a review and assessment of the theory and practice of planning for urban poverty alleviation and slum development in developing countries.

The report, Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development by Design, makes the case that tackling urban poverty and attending to its spatial manifestations is vitally important to national economic and social development. From a low of an estimated 28 percent of the population in Latin America to a high of 76 percent in South Asia, the urban poor constitute both an enormous challenge and an opportunity: relieving the immense human suffering the urban poor experience and supporting them can unleash their entrepreneurial drive and their significant contribution to labor markets. The speed with which many regions of the world are urbanizing, the haphazard spatial development of urban areas, and the deplorable conditions under which more than 800 million slum dwellers live make the need to address urban poverty more urgent than ever.

The study outlines key deficiencies in how developing countries conduct their urban planning. Often, national governments establish regional authorities or public-private partnerships to plan major investments in urban infrastructure. These authorities and partnerships, however, often do not adequately consider broader regional land use planning goals, community input, or the needs of poor communities. Local land use regulations and plans, to the extent that they exist at all, are not widely followed. Plans for slums seldom situate them in the context of broader plans for the urban region. And the nongovernmental organizations that do much of the work to improve slums rarely coordinate their efforts. Community-based organizations often are weak and not incorporated into the government’s urban planning process. In addition, these governments, authorities, and partnerships generally fail to formulate specific strategies to improve or redevelop slums with minimum disruption to existing homes and economic activities. The result of these deficiencies is largely unplanned and uncoordinated urban growth.

Yet, the report notes, many examples of better planning practices exist around the world. These include efforts to develop national strategies for urban development and poverty alleviation, regional planning and governance, anticipatory planning for urban growth and climate change, spatial planning and coordination of land uses and investments, participatory planning and community engagement, asset building for the poor, and institutional transparency and accountability through initiatives such as participatory municipal budgeting.

The study explores key obstacles to addressing urban poverty in developing countries, including the limited public resources available to deal with such an enormous challenge, how political motivations complicate planning for slums, and the weak capacity for planning and investment at the regional level.

Drawing on planning advances and examples of best practices, the report contains a list of recommendations on how better urban planning and investment can spur inclusive and sustainable urban development:

  • Support the formation of national urban development commissions — spurred by intergovernmental, international bodies — that are charged with developing plans for inclusive and sustainable urban development.
  • Create regional planning funds to support participatory, multi-stakeholder spatial planning initiatives at the regional level.
  • Pursue improved and transparent planning practices through large-scale, public-private partnerships.
  • Build government capacity to maximize public benefits from public land sales, granting real estate development rights to private landowners and public-private partnerships.
  • Develop a diagnostic tool to assess and improve urban planning and governance for inclusive and sustainable urban development.
  • Identify and invest in best practices and processes for urban planning.
  • Invest in community-based organizations and their intermediary support organizations.
  • Invest in training and nurturing local entrepreneurs who are dedicated to meeting the market demands of the poor and who will employ them in local businesses.
  • Set up innovation and social venture capital funds to test the risks and returns of “mezzo-level” (as opposed to microcredit) lending to organizations focused on housing, community infrastructure, and small business expansion in slums.

Taken together, these actions would greatly improve planning for inclusive and sustainable urban development and create an international movement to focus on these issues. Despite the severity of urban poverty, the rapid urbanization of many parts of the world, and the compelling reasons to combat urban poverty and slums, many feel that these issues remain too low on international and national agendas. With a growing list of examples of best practices to address urban poverty in effective ways, the Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations still before us, and a chorus of globally branded businesses (including McKinsey and JP Morgan Chase) calling for better urban planning and poverty amelioration strategies, there is a chance that these issues will gain the international attention they deserve.