Planning for Open Space in an Urbanizing World

Cities around the world are exploding with new inhabitants and newly built structures.  The world population is growing at about 750 million people per decade.  That is the equivalent of adding 88 new New York Citys in 10 years.  By far the fastest growth, 80% of the growth, is happening on the edges of current cities in Asia and Africa.  London took 2000 years to grow to 10 million.  Twenty cities in the world are now over 10 million, with Shanghai the largest at 24 million.  When today’s baby boomers were babies, there were only about 2.5 billion people in the world. Now that they are entering retirement age, there are 7.5 billion, three times as many people, three times as crowded.  But that crowding is happening out of sight to most US and European citizens.  The world is changing in ways that will ripple through the peace, prosperity and politics of the developed world whether we see it or not.Mega Cities - Current and Future

New Approach to Land Use Planning

Standard land use planning and zoning never anticipated such rates of growth.  Nor are the forms of government in many of these countries hospitable to the slow, cautious managerial and regulatory procedures that have traditionally nurtured long range planning.  Land use planners in these rapidly growing cities need to take a lead from the world of software development and be more agile.  Don’t spend a decade fine tuning master planning studies.  First, establish clear principles of property ownership. Then establish where the main streets and the parks will go.  Do it now, before the inevitable shanty towns and apartment blocks arrive.  If you have the luxury, plan for density with taller buildings.  Once the low rise shanty towns take root, it guarantees future sprawl and aggravates the difficulty of delivering transit and utilities.

Acquiring rights of way for future roads and amenities can be both costly and politically difficult (though not nearly as much as waiting until it is too late). Almost all fast-growing cities are in countries where landholdings are small, and small farmers do not take kindly to being booted off their land. But a few countries have developed a promising technique known as land readjustment. Instead of evicting farmers in the path of a new road, officials offer to reorganize a whole district. Everybody loses some land, and the biggest winners—those closest to the new road—compensate those who fare less well. Japanese cities used this technique when they were growing quickly. Today the Indian state of Gujarat makes it work.

Open Space:  How Much and What For:

In Manhattan, the dense, high rise city of the USA, 50% of the land area is open space. Manhattan streets are 36% of the borough’s land area.  A planner “rule of thumb” suggests that every city should have about 30% of its land area devoted to streets.  In some of the growth around expanding African cities, the ratio of roads to overall land is 5%.  If there is no room for roads, there certainly is no room for sewer systems, water systems or even electric and other utilities.

Shlomo Angel of New York University has studied seven African cities in detail: Accra, Addis Ababa, Arusha, Ibadan, Johannesburg, Lagos and Luanda. He calculates that only 16% of the land in new residential areas developed since 1990 has been set aside for roads—about half as much as planners think ideal. And 44% of those roads are less than 13.5 feet wide.  For comparison, the Toyota Land Cruiser has a turning radius of 19.5 feet and is 6.5 feet wide.

Dar Es Salaam, in Tanzania, Eastern Africa, is the ninth fastest growing city in the world , (INSERT) but at only 5.12 million expected by 2020, it is still relatively small.  The ECONOMIST, looked at the city in July 2016.  In Mikwambe building is chaotic. “Houses are rising higgledy-piggledy. Many are half-finished and look abandoned, although they are not: one has no floor and a tree growing inside. What appears to be a small village square turns out to be a plot on which the owner has not yet got around to building. The neighborhood has only one paved road, no central water supply and no sewer. It is a kind of bourgeois shanty town. “
“With few exceptions, cities are growing faster in size than in population. Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, is typical: it doubled in population between 1990 and 2010 but tripled in area. In short, almost all urban growth is sprawl.”

“In the Chinese province of Zhejiang, another city is spreading. Two decades ago, most of Xiaoshan was farmland inhabited by peasants who seldom travelled to the city of Hangzhou, about 12 miles away. Now Xiaoshan is a sprawling suburb which grew from 1.77m people in 2005 to 2.35m last year. It looks nothing like Mikwambe; nor does it remotely resemble a European or American suburb.”

“Homes in Xiaoshan are a mixture of grubby apartment blocks and grandiose four- and five-story homes decorated in joyous combinations of pastel colours.  They are connected to the electricity grid, the sewer system and the road network. Roads account for fully 29% of land area in the newly developed suburbs of Hangzhou.  The western edge of Xiaoshan even has a subway line.Behind the lines of tightly packed houses and apartment blocks are large fields divided into strips. A lattice of urbanity has been overlaid on an agricultural landscape.”

What difference does it make?

With no land left for future roads, rail and highways, commercial development will be stunted.  Not only is commerce impaired, but the city’s ability to provide safe water, sewers, etc. are hurt.  Imagine how much more expensive it is to move shanty towns and apartment blocks, widen the roads and dig the lines for sewer and water!  With inadequate roads,transit is limited and so, then, is mobility needed for work.  With no land left for school buildings, where will the leaders in government, finance, science, arts and entrepreneurship come from?

Open space is utilitarian.  Roads, power, sewers, water all need open space pathways through a city, land reserved for public use to maintain public health and to grow the economy.  Go a step further to the harder to measure importance of parks and public access to waterfront areas. These are more threatened in the future cities of the world, more even than roadways.

“Per person, the amount of land devoted to parks, squares and other public spaces in Riyadh, for instance, has fallen by 80% in half a century. Public spaces now comprise just 2% of the area of Middle Eastern cities compared with 12% in the average European city, according to UN Habitat, an agency that monitors urban development in part through satellite imagery. They make up just 0.5% of Beirut.”

Why Aren’t Open Spaces Planned?

“Greed is partly to blame, says Jala Makhzoumi, an Iraqi urban planner who has drafted plans for re-greening capitals across the Arab world. Unaccountable tycoons find ways to turn public spaces private. Local governments are often unwilling or unable to stop them. Developers, for instance, have recently fenced off one of Beirut’s last stretches of natural waterfront to build more gated high-rises. Its prime beach is now earmarked for a luxury hotel. Warlords-cum-politicians have appropriated Baghdad’s finest palm groves, and carved its plushest neighborhoods into walled enclaves.”

“Carelessness is another culprit. Half of the Arab world’s modern cities are, in effect, unplanned, says Eduardo Moreno, the research director at UN Habitat. Palestinian refugees have turned much of Beirut’s largest green space, the once-forested Horsh Beirut, into a camp; Israel set fire to the rest in its invasion of 1982.”

Between the control of the land by wealthy and powerful individuals, the rapidly increasing value of the land due to population growth, the lack of clear title (particularly true in many African countries with a more “collective” sense of land possession), there are many roadblocks to better land use planning in growing cities.  Governments in these rapidly growing areas also fear that open spaces can be used by public protesters.

People to Watch

The image of roadless shanty towns with no power, water or sewer covering hundreds of square miles with millions of people conjurs images from dystopian science fiction.  The pattern is in place to take us there but it can be averted.  Here are some people to watch, people who are keeping their eye on how cities of the future get built.

  • Shlomo Angel of New York University who has studied seven African cities in detail: Accra, Addis Ababa, Arusha, Ibadan, Johannesburg, Lagos and Luanda
  • Joan Clos, former Mayor of Barcelona, Executive Director, UN Habitat
  • Lourdes German, lawyer, planner at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, UN Habitat and The Civic Innovation Project
  • John D. Macomber, Harvard Business School, teaches entrepreneurs, capitalists and managers how to build cities
  • Jala Makhzoumi, an Iraqi urban planner who has drafted plans for re-greening capitals across the Arab world
  • Eduardo Moreno, research director at UN Habitat
  • Rami Nasrullah, a Palestinian city planner who researches Arab growth


Additional Reading:

“Those cities that have failed to integrate the multi-functionality of streets tend to have lesser infrastructure development, lower productivity and a poorer quality of life”  UN-Habitat’s Executive Director, Dr. Joan Clos

In this report, Streets as Public Spaces and Drivers of Prosperity, UN-Habitat is making a first attempt to integrate streets into the five dimensions of prosperity measured by the City Prosperity Index (CPI). These five dimensions – productivity, infrastructure development, environmental sustainability, quality of life, and equity/social inclusion – are all strongly linked to the quality of the street pattern,,contentMDK:21393869~pagePK:146736~piPK:146830~theSitePK:223547,00.html

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