Urbanisation is the best route out of poverty – but it needs to be sustainable

Tianjin, China: one of the many cities trying to move toward low carbon growth. Photo: Yang Aijun/World Bank/IFC.

Mention urbanisation, and people are quick to list the potential downsides: pollution, overcrowding, unsafe construction and the rise of slums.

The challenges of urbanisation can be immense, especially when vast numbers of people move to cities within a short period of time. However, the opportunities available to help build sustainable cities are numerous and the positive gains of doing so are compelling. Urbanisation is among the most powerful mechanisms we have to fight poverty.

That’s because cities have a competitive advantage over rural areas to move the most people out of poverty. According to the World Bank’s Urban Development Overview 2015, more than 80 per cent of the world’s GDP is generated in cities. McKinsey calculates that 600 of the world’s fastest growing cities are set to generate more than 60 percent of global growth by 2025. Meanwhile, China’s 225 fastest growing cities will contribute an estimated 30 percent to global GDP growth within the next 10 years.

Cities not only contribute the most towards national growth, they also to more to reduce poverty. The Asian Development Bank found that, between 1990 and 2008, the number of rural poor in East Asia Pacific fell 69 per cent, from 734 million to 227 million. Meanwhile, the number of urban poor dropped 73 per cent from 137 million to 37 million. And that happened despite a doubling of the urban population over the same period.

In other words, Asia’s cities proved to be adaptable and resilient by absorbing huge numbers, without the new arrivals sliding into urban poverty.

Urban dwellers benefit from proximity and economies of scale that cut their commuting time, reduces energy demand for transport, encourages productivity and allows easier access to health and education services. With reliable infrastructure, sustainable buildings and green supply chains, big cities attract talented workers with higher incomes and more private sector investment. In turn, this generates strong growth and better tools and platforms to help tackle poverty.

However, urban investments need to embrace sustainable practices. 66 million people in the developing world are migrating to urban areas each year, and the World Bank expects the world’s population to reach 60 per cent by 2030, rising to 70 per cent by 2050. To meet the huge demand developing for food and energy, expanding cities should invest in efficient and sustainable global supply chains that boost demand for food and goods from suppliers in poorer countries. This supply chain expansion holds the potential to alleviate poverty in local rural areas as well as across borders.

Asia is leading the global urbanisation boom, and its rapidly growing cities offer exciting opportunities for sustainable development. The United Nations Economic & Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific estimates that about 120,000 people in Asia are migrating to cities every day. Of the world’s 28 megacities – cities with populations over 10 million – 17 are found in Asia. By 2050, the proportion of people living in Asia’s cities is expected to rise to 63 per cent, creating an urban population of 3.3bn people. In China alone, McKinsey estimates, 1bn people will live in urban areas by 2030.

This concentration of urbanisation persuaded the International Finance Corporation to launch its EDGE program in East Asia Pacific on Monday 8 June (just before the New Cities Summit in Jakarta). EDGE – Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies – is a simple-to-use software tool designed as a low-cost way to improve energy efficiency in new buildings. EDGE aims to reduce the utilisation of energy, water and materials by at least 20 per cent each.

Nam Long Investment Corp, the developer of the Bridge View Apartment building in Ho Chi Minh City, says adopting EDGE added about 2 per cent to the construction bill; but that cost was offset by ongoing savings of at least 20 per cent in residents’ water and electricity bills. This was achieved by installing features that included energy efficient lighting, reflective paint for the outdoor walls and roof, high thermal performance glass and low-flow faucets .

The IFC estimates that about 50 per cent of buildings in Asian cities will be replaced by new ones by 2050. Smart and efficient building could translate into energy savings of 10 per cent for an entire city. With cities across Asia being built at an unparalleled speed and size, initiatives like EDGE can help these cities develop sustainably and bring prosperity to their populations.

Julia Brickell is program leader for Cities in East Asia Pacific at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. Her role is to work with the private sector to finance sustainable development, contributing to the World Bank’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity.

Brickell will be speaking at the New Cities Summit, to be held in Jakarta on 9-11 June. This post was originally published on the New Cities Foundation's blog.



Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.