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How to capture public life in public spaces?

Fen Wei's picture
Photo credit: Lois Goh/ World Bank
Urbanization and economic growth go hand in hand.  Cities are turning into centers of attraction in developing countries and their population is rising constantly. In such cities, we often see in a city a mix of old and new, slow and fast: Street vendors hawking their wares by luxury shopping malls; highways segmentizing parks and walkways; high-rise crowding out traditional neighborhoods, etc. However, we do not often see a well-balanced mix that serves all urban dwellers with a wide array of needs, economically and socially.
What are the ingredients of a good urban life, or rather, what does it take for a city to make the public happy? The answer to this is multifaceted. Cities need to be accessible, vibrant, and create safe public spaces to meet public needs.
As UN-Habitat’s Charter of Public Space states, public spaces are a key element of individual and social well-being, the places of a community’s collective life, particularly in situations of poverty and limited public resources, such as those in the developing countries. The Charter also highlights that participation of citizens and in particular of communities of residents is of crucial importance for the maintenance and management of public spaces. While there might be no objection to this statement, it is also true that it has been easily overlooked, especially in developing countries, for the sake of “economic efficiency.”

Transforming urban waterfronts

Fen Wei's picture
HafenCity, Hamburg. Photo Credit: ELBE&FLUT / Thomas Hampel at
HafenCity, Hamburg.
Photo Credit: ELBE&FLUT / Thomas Hampel at
“The waterfront isn’t just something unto itself. It’s connected to everything else,” said Jane Jacobs, a prominent urbanist.
This connection is twofold; it refers to the relationship between cities and their waterfronts – as ever-changing as cities themselves.
Evolving from its past definition during the industrial era as a city’s service yard, the urban waterfront has, in recent decades, taken on new meanings.

On one hand, the waterfront is playing a more significant role in transforming the urban fabric of a city or even reshaping a city’s identity.
On the other hand, successful urban waterfronts have also demonstrated how city resources – such as available land, cleaner water, historic preservation, and urban revitalization – can be unlocked and realized, and how these elements can be integrated into the city and public life.
[Read: Regenerating Urban Land: A Practitioner's Guide to Leveraging Private Investment]

Why enhancing public urban spaces matters for Karachi

Annie Bidgood's picture
Vibrant streets with vendors. Photo: Jon Kher Kaw / World Bank
Public spaces such as streets, open spaces, parks, and public buildings are a big part of cities that are often overlooked. Inadequate, poorly designed, or privatized public spaces often generate exclusion and marginalization and degrades the livability of the urban environment. That is why the importance of public spaces are now embedded within the Sustainable Development Goals.
In dense built-up cities like Karachi, Pakistan, public spaces are even more important. These are areas of respite and recreation from the stress of city life. They are also social and cultural spaces where livelihoods and businesses are conducted, especially for the urban poor. Public open spaces in Karachi have suffered from rapid urban growth: 
  • The total share of green space detectable in satellite imagery has fallen from 4.6% in 2001 to 3.7% in 2013.
  • Large tracts of vacant land in prime areas in the city center are closed off to the public and neglected.
  • Twelve square kilometers of prime waterfront area, often a valuable public asset in other cities, is still mostly undeveloped more than 10 years after the roads were built.
  • Many sidewalks in the main commercial areas and busy corridors are broken down, converted to unregulated parking areas, or used for dumping trash—to the detriment of pedestrian safety and public health.
  • In a focus group, women also remarked on the lack of safe playgrounds or other recreational facilities for children.
Recently the World Bank Group approved a loan for the Karachi Neighborhood Improvement Project (KNIP) to finance improvements in public spaces in the city’s selected neighborhoods and to strengthen the city government’s capacity to provide certain administrative services  such as business registration and construction permits. The investments in safety, walkability and access to public transit nodes are also timely, given the city’s plans to introduce a system of Bus Rapid Transit within the city and in two of the three neighborhoods.

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Here is my colleague, Sohaib Athar talking about #Karachi Neighbourhood Improvement Project:

Beyond the investments in the physical space and urban design, a key design feature of KNIP is its emphasis on active and sustained engagement with the residents of Karachi. The project aims to use a participatory planning process to identify, prioritize, and design highly impactful enhancements to public areas such as sidewalks, open spaces and green spaces, and public buildings. While the exact nature of investments will be determined through community consultations, they may include safety features for pedestrians and other non-motorized transportation, accessibility and mobility improvements close to commercial areas and planned transit stations, new or upgraded neighborhood parks and playgrounds, infrastructure to foster safe and vibrant street activity (kiosks for vendors, tables and seating, temporary street closures for festivals, etc.), measures to address traffic congestion and parking, and improved municipal services in public areas (street lighting, garbage collection, drainage, etc.).

KNIP is intended to be an entry point to showcase the value of participatory planning and inclusive urban design, as the first step in a longer-term strategy for city transformation and rejuvenation. Building confidence and inclusiveness in city management is critical to ensure the success of deeper institutional reforms and larger infrastructure investment programs down the road. KNIP is expected to help lay the foundation for a multi-year partnership between the World Bank Group and the local and provincial governments focused on inclusivity, livability, and prosperity. To this end, KNIP will also support the creation of a Karachi Transformation Steering Committee (KTSC), comprised of elected officials, government representatives, business leaders, community stakeholders and NGOs representing various public interests. KTSC’s mandate is to develop a shared vision for Karachi’s transformation and a roadmap to achieve that vision in an inclusive way.

Transforming Karachi, Pakistan into a livable and competitive megacity

Jon Kher Kaw's picture
It will take Karachi as much as $10 billion of capital investment over the next decade to close the infrastructure gaps in the city.
On the ground, it is not too difficult to see why this is so. More than 40% of residents rely on public transport, but with 45 residents competing for one bus seat, travel within the city is difficult. Water supply is highly irregular, and rationing is widespread. The availability of water ranges from four hours per day to two hours every other day. Many households rely on private vendors who sell water from tankers at high prices. The sewage network has not been well maintained since the 1960s, and all three existing treatment plants are dysfunctional. Industrial waste, which contains hazardous materials and heavy oils, is dumped directly into the sea untreated. Of the 12,000 tons of municipal solid waste generated each day, 60% never reaches a dumpsite; 80% of medical waste is not disposed of properly.

[Download report: Transforming Karachi into a Livable and Competitive Megacity]
Garbage accumulated on a road median in Karachi. Photo: Annie Bidgood / World Bank

There are otters in the city

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture

Photo by budak via Flickr CC

When a family of 10 smooth-coated otters appeared in Singapore’s urban downtown of Marina Bay last year, the city was ablaze with excitement and delight. Who would have thought that these otters would make a dense urban environment like Singapore home? After all, otters were thought to have vanished in the 1970s as Singapore rapidly developed into a dense metropolis.
Was this a fad? Probably. Was this a big deal? Absolutely. In a small city-state where land is considered a scarce resource, the tension between urban development and biodiversity conservation can be very pronounced. This was not the case in Singapore. Between 1986 and 2010, as Singapore’s urban population doubled from 2.7 to 5 million, its green cover also increased from 36% to 50%, all within the confines of just 710 square kilometers. The increase in green cover in urbanized Singapore was seen as a sign that the efforts by the urban planning agency, parks and water management boards had paid off, and a testament that the natural environment could be indeed be integrated effectively into the urban fabric of the city.
Today is World Environment Day. This year, it celebrates the theme of “connecting people to nature,” and invites us to think about how we are part of nature—and how intimately we depend on it.

The “human scale” in public urban areas

Judy Zheng Jia's picture

Slideshow: Reimagining a park, a river, and other public spaces in Seoul (Photos by Judy Zheng Jia / World Bank)

"If you lose the human scale, the city becomes an ugly place," said Joan Clos, Executive Director of the UN-HABITAT at the Habitat III Conference last month. But more than being "ugly," the lack of good public urban spaces, such as open spaces, parks, and public buildings, often contribute to low livability in many of the world's congested and polluted cities. In fact, the importance of the issue received recognition in SDG 11, Target 7, which calls for the provision of “universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green, and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons, and persons with disabilities,” by 2030.
Global experience shows that disconnected, underutilized areas in urban settings can, instead, be opened up to a variety of uses to allow for improved social inclusion, social mixing, civic participation, recreation, safety, and a sense of belonging, ultimately contributing to urban prosperity. Well-designed and well-managed public spaces also offer benefits to environmental sustainability, transport efficiency, and public health improvements, and can equally serve women, the disabled, and people of all ages.

The importance of good urban spaces was the topic of an international workshop—“Vitalizing Cities with Public Space”—held in Seoul on November 14-17, 2016 and co-hosted by the Korea Research Institute of Human Settlements and the World Bank’s Urbanscapes Group. Eight cities from around the world—Seoul, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Chongqing, Kakamega, Zanzibar, Astana, and Tashkent—participated to discuss challenges and opportunities for better urban planning and design.

Building sustainable cities starts with smart urban design

Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez's picture
The global conversation about urban sustainability focuses primarily on the big picture: how to reduce the carbon footprint and energy consumption of cities? How can we provide the infrastructure and services necessary to meet the needs of a soaring urban population? How can cities create enough jobs for everyone?
These issues are critically important, no doubt. But what about the city itself as a physical space? What should a sustainable city "look like"? Are there any big design principles that all successful urban planners should follow?
Because urbanization is often a chaotic process, many countries feel like they don't have the time or resources to address those questions. Yet evidence has shown that considerations about urban form and design are anything but cosmetic: creating vibrant public spaces within a city, for instance, can boost competitiveness, improve health outcomes, and strengthen social cohesion.
In this video, Ede Ijjasz-Vasquez and Jon Kher Kaw delve deeper into the linkages between urban spaces and sustainability, and describe the many benefits that come with a well-designed city.
If you want to learn more about this topic, we invite you to discover our latest Sustainable Communities podcast.

How public spaces will help change cities for the better

Gunes Basat's picture
Also available in: Español
Photo: Wajahat Syed/Flickr
Photo: Wajahat Syed/Flickr
How to make cities more livable for people? How to create good, inclusive and accessible public spaces for all?

I’m not an urban planner nor an architect. I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist either. But based on my personal experience, I can tell why public spaces are important in people’s lives. Just close your eyes for a second and think about your favorite public space. What do you like to do over there most? Why do you think you love it there?

I like them because they provide green breather spaces in the city and provide a place for recreation, enjoyment and a sense of belonging.

However, after hearing from many prominent urban development experts at a recent World Bank-led “Urbanscapes Symposium”, I quickly realized that public spaces are more than this. It was striking to me to see and learn that, for others, public spaces are places where livelihoods are conducted and are essential spaces for social interaction, especially for the poor.

In that respect, providing people with new public spaces, where they can feel invited, welcome and safe, can encourage them to spend more time outside and foster interaction among lower income communities.

It should come as no surprise, then, that planning standards recommend devoting 15-20 % of land in cities to public open space… Yet most cities are falling short of that goal: in the United States, for instance, 75% of the 100 largest cities do not meet that requirement.

So how can we work with cities to help them create a better urban environment and leverage the potential of public spaces?