With 1 in 3 city dwellers lacking access to basic services, new WRI report charts a new urban roadmap to improve billions of lives, reduce environmental damage and generate economic prosperity for all

WASHINGTON (October 19, 2021)—A new report from WRI finds that 1 in 3 city dwellers globally and 2 in 3 city dwellers in low-income countries are “under-served” — lacking access to one or more core urban services like affordable running water and sanitation, consistent electricity, decent housing, reliable transport to work and school, safe cooking fuel and more. In some cities, the number of people under-served grows to an astonishing 90% of residents.

Synthesizing six years of research from more than 30 authors, Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities shows that as urbanization has changed, income alone is no longer a sufficient barometer for quality of life and a thriving city. As the world looks to recover from COVID-19 and accommodate the more than 2.5 billion people that will be added to cities by 2050, unequal access to high-quality, reliable and affordable essential infrastructure and services is reducing productivity, causing poor health, inflicting environmental damage and locking people into poverty for generations.

WRI finds that bridging this urban services divide can put cities back on track and generate benefits that far outpace the investments required. This capstone report to the flagship World Resources Report series, Towards a More Equal City, presents a new vision for urban planning and development that prioritizes access to basic services for the under-served but can lead to economic and environmental benefits for all.

“During COVID-19, we have watched stark inequality spread in real time, making cities more unsustainable and the steps we recommend even more urgent,” said Ani Dasgupta, President and CEO at World Resources Institute and co-author on the report. “These recommendations can guide recovery efforts and close gaps the pandemic exposed and widened.”

The benefits to improving access to core urban services compound and build on one another. WRI’s research shows that providing better access to safe sanitation, for example, can save $223 billion per year in health costs, lost productivity and wages. Improving transportation infrastructure and land management to produce shorter commutes can help save low-income commuters a third of their spent income, lower air pollution and provide more access to jobs.

In some cases, efforts to close this services divide have led to citywide transformative change. The report highlights Surabaya, Indonesia’s slum upgrading program, for example, which used participatory approaches to improve infrastructure and services, provide affordable housing at scale and support livelihoods.

WRI’s research lays out seven crucial transformations and priority actions that show how to reimagine urban service provision, how to include the excluded and how to create the enabling conditions for lasting change. 

“Cities can implement the transformations in different ways and pick the entry points that are most apt for their local context,” said Anjali Mahendra, Director of Global Research at WRI Ross Center and lead report author. “But we know that wherever cities begin, prioritizing these actions will help bridge the services gap, and lead to greater equity with citywide economic and environmental benefits.”

Through these powerful transformations, WRI brings together the best thinking on how to break through the status quo and create transformative change. The report documents breakthrough innovations from Brazil to Indonesia and Uganda to India, revealing how cities have implemented real solutions in areas where they are desperately needed. It offers detailed recommendations for key actors and multiple paths to recovery now and resilience in the future.

The seven transformations are: 

  1. Infrastructure Design and Delivery — Prioritizing the Vulnerable
  2. Service Provision Models — Partnering with Alternative Service Providers
  3. Data Collection Practices — Improving Local Data through Community Engagement
  4. Informal Urban Employment — Recognizing and Supporting Informal Workers
  5. Financing and Subsidies — Increasing Investment and Targeting Funds Innovatively
  6. Urban Land Management — Promoting Transparency and Integrated Spatial Planning
  7. Governance and Institutions — Creating Diverse Coalitions and Alignment

“The findings of this report go even beyond cities,” said Rogier van den Berg, Acting Global Director of WRI Ross Center. “Cities, countries and the global community can use these recommendations to make progress on multiple objectives, from the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda, to the Paris Agreement, to COVID-19 recovery by putting equity at the center.”

Human development and climate challenges are increasingly urban development and climate challenges. WRI’s research demonstrates cities today and in the future can only be successful if we focus on ending inequality and invigorating livelihoods. Decisions made today can widen the urban services divide in ways that grow harder to reverse and worsen the risks of climate change. But cities can also lead transformative change for people and the environment.

The Towards a More Equal City series includes this culminating synthesis report, seven thematic working papers, seven city case studies, a framing paper, dozens of international workshops and the contributions of more than 160 authors and reviewers. 

Learn more at citiesforall.org.


About World Resources Institute
WRI is a global research organization that spans more than 60 countries, with international offices in Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico and the United States, regional offices in Ethiopia (for Africa) and the Netherlands (for Europe), and program offices in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Our more than 1,400 experts and staff turn big ideas into action at the nexus of environment, economic opportunity and human well-being. More information at www.wri.org or on Twitter @WorldResources.  
About WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities
WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities is World Resources Institute’s program dedicated to shaping a future where cities work better for everyone. It enables more connected, compact and coordinated cities. The Center expands the transport and urban development expertise of the EMBARQ network to catalyze innovative solutions in other sectors, including air quality, water, buildings, land use and energy. It combines the research excellence of WRI with two decades of on-the-ground impact through a network of more than 320 experts working from Brazil, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, Turkey and the United States to make cities around the world better places to live. More information at www.wrirosscities.org.