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How to Achieve Equality, Prosperity and Sustainability in Cities

By 15/02/2023 0 Comments

Prosperous cities are essential for national economic development. Cities have proven to be reliable economic growth engines as they have gleaned talent, incubated ideas, increased productivity, and fostered innovation. However, cities with limited resources are expanding rapidly and haphazardly, with large swaths of urban residents residing in informal settlements and working in the informal economy. As a result, inequality in access to critical infrastructure and services greatly influences their livelihoods and has long-term prospects. These disparities are widening and spreading, particularly in developing cities. Those who are underserved by urban services suffer disproportionately from disease outbreaks and other threats such as economic shocks, environmental degradation, and natural disasters. Most developed cities have been able to spearhead a plethora of innovations to improve services and address access discrepancies. However, for most developing cities, these ideas and breakthroughs have not touched most urbanites. Therefore, decision-makers need various urban transformations to break out of silos and embrace new technologies and policy innovations to achieve more equal, prosperous and sustainable cities. 

Transformations to Achieve Equal, Prosperous and Sustainable Cities

The following transformations would allow cities to close the urban services divide and achieve greater equality while driving overall sustainability.

Infrastructure Design and Delivery

Most city residents have limited or no access to municipal infrastructure that provides essential services such as water, sanitation, transportation, and energy. Many cities make infrastructure design and development decisions without considering where new development and informal growth occur. As a result, unprecedented numbers of people swarm into informal settlements at the periphery and urban centres, completely bereft of basic services. In Pakistan, 47% of the population lives in informal settlements with inadequate infrastructure and services (Meyer, Qazi, Rajashekar, & Zhang, 2022). Moreover, infrastructure design and investment are stacked in favour of more affluent populations. For example, low-income commuters rely heavily on walking, cycling, and public transportation, yet cars and trucks account for up to 95% of road space (Mahendra, et al., 2021).

Furthermore, power outages are common, affecting informal firms and settlements the most. Urban areas of Pakistan experience six to ten hours, whereas rural parts witness eight to sixteen hours of load-shedding (Hasnain, Yasin, Ali, & Siddiqui, 2022). In some cases, the lack of coverage is due to pre-existing informality. For example, a $100 million project was supposed to protect Karachi’s slum dwellers from flooding but left many homeless before the project was halted (Zahid, 2023). This demonstrates how a lack of secure housing creates a barrier to receiving services from utilities looking to recoup costs.

Key Focus Area/What Should be Done?

Design, upgrade, and maintain municipal infrastructure to guarantee underserved populations have access to services.

Develop well-serviced, affordable housing in accessible locations that provide adequate access to services and open space by prioritising building rental units, converting under-utilized urban land to affordable housing, and investing in public transport to connect housing with employment centres through partnerships with communities that live there.

Adopt a new course using infrastructure that is low-carbon and climate-resistant.

Research and Data Collection

Credible and open local data provides access to sound policies and investments, understanding their impacts on vulnerable communities and improving city governance processes. However, many cities have restricted information about their residents’ needs and cannot solve poorly understood problems. Such significant information gaps result in inaccurate, ineffective, or incomplete policy responses and the inability to decide between conflicting priorities for action. Even when data is available, cities frequently lack the technical capacity to manage, share, and use data to assist decision-making. A lack of data also makes it difficult to hold governments accountable. In developing countries, where data collection resources are scarce, citywide surveys are conducted infrequently or not at all. They lack the precision required to draw meaningful conclusions about vulnerable groups who do not have access to basic services such as water and sanitation. Moreover, cities are frequently ignorant of the size of the informal workforce or the hardships endured by residents of informal settlements because these groups are undercounted in formal surveys and censuses. For example, in 2015, CDA forced slum eviction in certain areas of Islamabad without any relocation, resettlement plan, or negotiation offer to consult with the slum dwellers (DAWN, 2015).

Key Focus Area/What Should be Done?

Using new technologies and partnerships for better data and more granular local insights to conduct rapid community surveys and gather crowdsourced information, anonymised mobile phone records, electronic transactions, and satellite imagery can generate unprecedented amounts of data.

Increase city capacity to collect and effectively utilise data at the city level by providing the tools and training needed to gather, analyse, and share data and use it to inform policy.

Coproduction and data sharing to promote more effective and inclusive governance.

Addressing Informal Urban Employment

The informal economy is frequently overlooked, hampered, and deprived of the resources it requires to function effectively. For instance, Pakistan’s informal economy is estimated to be around 56% of the country’s GDP, worth $180 billion a year (DAWN, 2021). However, informal workers face inequities in access to urban services, which can reduce productivity and jeopardise livelihoods. Small, informal businesses suffer the most from a lack of access to public spaces, services, and opportunities. Increasing access to these resources and credit for informal workers to expand their businesses can be a potential means for inclusive economic growth and prosperity. 

Additionally, information on urban employment and productivity prioritise the formal sector and neglects informal work. City leaders who concentrate on traditional employment indicators frequently overlook the significance of the informal workforce and the home-based workers crammed into informal settlements. Women and the poor comprise a disproportionate share of the informal labour force. For instance, home-based women workers comprise 70% of the informal workforce behind Pakistan’s economic activities. However, excluding this sector and effectively supporting the urban poor is impossible. Informal economic activities must be encouraged because they not only provide a source of income for the working poor but also provide goods and services that keep the city’s formal economy running.

Key Focus Area/What Should be Done?

Assess and quantify the contributions and challenges of informal workers.

Granting equal rights to informal urban employment and recognising the legitimacy of informal and home-based workers by providing decent housing, reliable energy and water, and transport connecting them with suppliers and markets can boost productivity and enhance well-being.

Expand access of informal urban employees to public spaces, services, customers, and social safety nets by making their operations inexpensive and precarious and ensuring access to credit which will aid in expanding their businesses or investing in housing.

Financing and Subsidies

Cities are not making the investments required to close gaps in fundamental services that would undeniably serve the public interest and pay for themselves. Low- and middle-income cities do not have the resources to close the urban service divide gap and fail to raise the tax money required to finance expensive infrastructure projects. However, delaying the construction of such projects can have far-reaching consequences. According to the World Health Organization, providing urban dwellers with clean drinking water costs $141 billion, but unsafe water and inadequate sanitation currently cost 10 times more, mostly in time and health costs (Mahendra, et al., 2021). Many urban infrastructure projects look up to international aid organisations for funding. However, cities rely on national governments to take out or guarantee loans. Furthermore, the privatisation of many urban services has failed in the absence of government subsidies, particularly for the poorest. Also, the methods used to analyse urban infrastructure investments frequently only calculate short-term costs and do not take into account the actual long-term economic costs and benefits for the city.

Key Focus Area/What Should be Done?

Make well-planned, targeted subsidies for affordability and social returns.

Merging national government finance with traditional and innovative local financing instruments can support significant investments. For instance, property taxes and subsidies can be combined with innovations such as land value capture techniques or green bonds.

Regulate private entities and strengthen oversight capacity by providing training and capacity building to engage with utility managers and financiers to negotiate improved outcomes, along with authority and political will to enforce their decisions.

Integrate broader social costs and benefits into financial analysis, and engage with the community.

Transparency and Spatial Planning in Urban Land Management

Multiple cities have poor land management systems due to a lack of transparency in land records and property rights, scant oversight, and ineffective regulation. According to International Property Rights Index 2022, Pakistan ranks 108 out of 129 economies (International Property Rights Index, 2022). Uncertain land markets make it more difficult for local governments to use urban land as a key tax base and source of municipal finance. Moreover, development projects are often profit-driven instead of demand-based, which are poorly enforced and fragmented. This causes unplanned expansion leading to the formation of informal settlements that lack essential public services and suffer from poor housing quality, overcrowded living spaces, and often no land titles or tenure security, even if families may have lived there for multiple generations.

Key Focus Area/What Should be Done?

Make regulations and incentives to structure land markets more transparent and inclusive. 

Improve services in informal settlements to achieve affordable, livable density by upgrading the settlements. 

Cities must develop density and land-use policies aligned with spatial planning for inclusive urban services and citywide and sustainable growth.


Cities are centres of innovation and productivity, where every individual thrives. However, cities are expanding exponentially while the inequality gap is widening. With many cities already struggling to meet basic human needs, global development and climate challenges are becoming increasingly urban concerns. Therefore, a sustainable future depends on adapting the aforementioned ways to help transform cities into more equal, prosperous, and sustainable hubs of economic growth and development.


DAWN. (2015, August 26). Retrieved from

DAWN. (2021, March 4). Informal sector. Retrieved from DAWN:

Hasnain, K., Yasin, A., Ali, M., & Siddiqui, T. (2022, April 29). Country swelters as power outages disrupt daily life. Retrieved from DAWN:

International Property Rights Index. (2022). Retrieved from

Mahendra, A., King, R., Du, J., Dasgupta, A., Beard, V., Kallergis, A., & Schalch, K. (2021). Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities. World Resources Report. Washington D.C: World Resources Institute. doi:

Meyer, M., Qazi, M., Rajashekar, A., & Zhang, Y. (2022, September 8). BEHIND ON RENT OR LEFT BEHIND: MEASURING HOUSING POVERTY IN URBAN PAKISTAN. World Bank Group. Retrieved from

Zahid, L. (2023, January 17). World Bank adaptation funds slept through Pakistan’s record flooding. Retrieved from climate home news:

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