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World Resources 1996-97
(A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United
 Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development
 Programme, and the World Bank)
(Data edited by Dr. Róbinson Rojas)

5. Urban Priorities for Action


Underlying virtually all urban environmental problems is the issue of land use, from the lack of affordable housing, to congestion and pollution from motor vehicles, to inner cities marred by abandoned buildings. Indeed, urban form and land use patterns within a city are critical determinants of environmental quality (101). This connection implies that land use planning could be used to improve the urban environment by directing urban growth in certain ways.

Translating potential into policy and then into reality has proved difficult, however. In part, the problem lies with defining the ideal urban form. While high-density cities can reduce the need for transportation, and thereby problems of energy consumption and pollution, without adequate infrastructure they may facilitate the transmission of communicable diseases and increase congestion (102) (103). In contrast, low-density cities are land intensive but may provide other amenities such as open space. Within a city, a dense cluster of industries may be especially hazardous if located near a residential neighborhood or a coastal estuary, yet dispersing them throughout the city could increase the need for transportation and may hinder pollution control efforts (104).

Even more vexing has been the relative failure of governments to successfully guide urban form, even with detailed master plans and regulatory systems. Land use planning is notoriously difficult. In most cities, governments and/or private landowners are unwilling to relinquish control of land because it provides a source of cash income and political power (105) (106) (107). Furthermore, there are no "decisionmakers" deciding on the shapes of cities; city form is determined by the interaction of countless decisions by individuals, households, and businesses on the one hand, and a variety of government interventions designed to influence or control those decisions on the other (108). Regulatory tools can have unintended impacts. In the United States, minimum plot sizes, initially intended to prevent urban expansion, have achieved just the opposite by requiring each house to occupy its own large lot (109). In cities in developing countries, zoning and regulations have the unintended effect of putting the land out of the financial reach of the majority of residents.

Government intervention in land markets is nonetheless warranted to meet the land needs of the urban poor and to protect land on which settlement would have irreparable environmental consequences, such as water catchment areas (110). This section explores how land use planning can improve urban environmental quality. Prescriptions for better urban land use are not the same for all cities. In cities in developing countries, land use issues must still focus on improving access to serviced urban land for the poor, for it is at this level that the greatest toll on the environment and human health is being taken. How cities choose to allocate and direct this land, however, can have an impact on future environmental conditions. In developed countries, land use issues should focus on reducing resource consumption and improving the quality of urban life.

Land for Housing

In many parts of the world, one of the main ways in which the poor have obtained access to land has been through informal settlement, particularly of fringe areas and hazardous land. The squatter settlements of the urban poor are a consistent feature of developing country cities--from New Delhi, India, to Caracas, Venezuela (111). (See Figure 5.3.)This process of land acquisition and shelter provision is often illegal, but in many cases it is the only option because governments are unable to provide sufficient serviced land for housing. Public housing projects fall far short of demand and often benefit middle-class rather than poor households (112).

As described in Chapter 1, "Cities and the Environment," informal settlements are rarely serviced by water or sanitation facilities or basic garbage collection. As long as land rights remain unclear, governments will be unwilling to service these areas, even though in many cases these settlements are so large that the government has no intention of dismantling them. And as long as residents face the threat of eviction, they will be unwilling to invest in their homes (113).

Traditional policy responses have been to regard this lack of infrastructure as the responsibility of public works departments. A land-based strategy, however, suggests that a more effective way to improve the environmental conditions in these settlements is to grant legal land tenure, either in the form of outright transfer of land ownership to tenants or through long-term leases and residential rights. Experience has shown that with security of tenure, the poor will build and invest to improve the quality of their own housing (114) (115). In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, for example, the government adjusted the land allocation process in an effort to curb urban sprawl and limit the growth of illegal settlements. Not only did the number of legalized lots increase dramatically (60,000 plots of land between 1984 and 1989), the regularization of land title led to the mobilization of local citizens and resources in support of other public services such as water supplies and schools (116). As urban land becomes more scarce, however, it will become progressively more difficult for the poor to obtain land and housing in this manner (117).

In addition to granting land tenure, several other redistribution mechanisms have been tried to allocate serviced land to the urban poor, including land sharing, land banking, and land readjustment. Few of these efforts have been successful. Land readjustment (also known as land consolidation or land pooling)has been somewhat effective in Taiwan, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Colombia, and India. The government (or other public authority) pools land from many private landowners and installs public infrastructure and then retains part of the land for public use (either for housing for the poor or to sell to finance the cost of the infrastructure). The remaining land is returned to its original owners, who now own a smaller portion of land but at a higher value (118).

Protecting Land Resources

Using land use tools to guide the siting of housing and industry away from environmentally sensitive areas can greatly improve environmental quality in cities. This is critical, for example, at the fringes of coastal urban areas, where development can result in rapid deterioration of the nearby coastal environment as untreated wastes, erosion, and uncontrolled access to biological resources take their toll (119).

Zoning, building codes, permits, and economic instruments such as taxes and fees are common tools used by governments to protect fragile areas and to prevent the unnecessary conversion of rural land to urban uses. These tools can be used to control densities, to separate land uses, and to directly protect natural areas (120). In Costa Rica, for example, urban development is restricted in a 200-meter-wide marine and terrestrial zone along the coastline (121). Economic instruments such as taxes on vacant land can encourage owners of land ripe for development to build on it, thereby reducing vacant land within city boundaries and limiting the extent of urban sprawl (122).

Zoning laws or regulations that ban urban development in specific regions of the city--such as greenbelts, green ways, and urban growth boundaries--can preserve open space and shape the form of the city. Although few examples of successful greenbelts exist to date, interest is growing in many cities. In older developed cities, from Manchester, United Kingdom, to Philadelphia, large plots of inner city land, known as "brownfields," lie abandoned as companies and industries move to undeveloped land in suburban and rural communities (123). For these cities, urban containment policies would restrict outward sprawl and encourage growth and redevelopment in existing urban areas. In the United Kingdom, for example, the combination of stringent greenbelt policies and funding incentives is leading to the regeneration of many city centers (124).

Without regional coordination, however, these containment policies are rarely successful. Greenbelts or urban growth boundaries can increase land prices in the city and encourage sprawl beyond them, as in the case of Seoul (125). In addition, political will and citizen activism in favor of greenbelts need to be strong to fend off proposals that request boundary changes (126).

Furthermore, ecologically sensitive areas are impossible to protect from urban encroachment if people and industries are not given alternative land options. In Caracas, for example, 67 percent of the land area occupied by barrios is unsuitable for housing because of geological instability and frequent landslides. Yet this unstable terrain is home to more than 550,000 people (127). Restricting these areas from development will have little effect if other housing options are not available.

City planners can reduce the health impacts of pollution and the costs of abatement through strategic decisions on the siting and density of urban industries. In many cities, industrial sites often abut residential neighborhoods or are located in environmentally sensitive areas where the negative effects of pollutants will be most pronounced. Judicious use of industrial zoning laws can help relieve this problem by relocating heavy industries out of the urban center and into industrial parks. In Turkey, the government provides subsidized credits for relocating industries to industrial parks, where existing infrastructure is better equipped to deal with wastes than in other parts of the city (128).

Often, clustering facilities in this way can lead to significant savings by allowing collective treatment of industrial wastes in a shared treatment plant. One such collective treatment facility, in Surabaya, Indonesia, is fully supported by the effluent charges collected from users, and is able to treat the wastes it uses thoroughly enough that its effluent can be reused by the industries it serves, helping them save on water costs (129).

Clustering facilities can be a particularly effective way of addressing the needs of smaller businesses that lack the knowledge or financial means to treat their own wastes. In some cases, it may be necessary to underwrite part or all of the costs of relocating lower-income firms to special cluster sites and constructing common treatment facilities for their wastes (130).

Broader Strategies: Urban Form and Environment

In addition to directing development away from fragile lands, land use planning has the potential to address problems of resource consumption and pollution by manipulating urban densities. Numerous negative impacts are associated with low-density settlements. They are often land intensive and are characterized by high infrastructure costs, greater reliance on private transportation with its attendant energy consumption and pollution, high domestic energy use due to the lack of shared insulation, and poor recycling rates due to large collection costs.

A compact city with a concentration of jobs and housing in a central location is typically described as the most resource- efficient city form, using minimal land resources and saving energy through multistory buildings and reduced need for travel (131). Debate continues, however, on the optimal density needed to produce these desired effects. Even in cities in developing countries, where densities tend to be comparatively high, large tracts of vacant land within the city exist that could be developed at high densities before expanding outward. In Karachi, Pakistan, for example, where overall city density approaches 4,000 people per square kilometer (132), more than 4,800 hectares of land within the city boundary lies vacant (133).

As cities grow to unprecedented sizes, however, the centralized city model becomes less tenable. First, while development along major lines of transportation to and from the center of the city tends to be high density, the areas between these "fingers" develop at low densities as the region attracts more people and businesses. Second, concentrating several million people (and all the economic activities that support them)in a central city can lead to severe congestion. Recent studies suggest that a more efficient urban form may be multinucleated urban regions, where many small, dense nodes- -satellite towns, new towns, edge cities--are linked together by transportation infrastructure (134).

In Berkeley, California, a proposed land use plan adopts this "nodal" vision rather than a centralized model for future urban growth. By redeveloping existing neighborhoods at higher densities, the centers will become increasingly compact and surrounding land can be reclaimed as open space. Within each of these neighborhoods, zoning laws will require a combination of jobs, housing, and entertainment, all within walking distance (135).

Integrated Land Use and Transportation

Studies on whether high densities should be concentrated in one centralized location or in many smaller nodes for maximum energy efficiency remain inconclusive (136). What is clear, however, is that neither strategy will provide benefits unless closely coordinated with transportation infrastructure. Indeed, transportation infrastructure development may be far more influential in determining where development will take place than land use planning (137). T he development of toll roads connecting Jakarta, Indonesia, with the nearby towns of Tangerang, Bekasi, and Bogor has had a tremendous impact on the physical growth of Jakarta, intensifying housing and industrial development far from the city itself and greatly increasing car traffic (138). In contrast, in Curitiba, Brazil, where development was channeled along bus lines, car use is much lower (139). (See Box 5.4.)

Directing urban growth along public transportation lines can greatly increase transit ridership and reduce energy consumption. Recently, a number of large cities--Portland, Oregon; Stockholm, Sweden; Toronto; Vienna, Austria; and Copenhagen, Denmark--have all attempted to concentrate high-density residential development near public transit stations (140). Without coordination of land use and transportation planning at the outset, chances are that cities will develop increasingly car-dependent forms. In the Netherlands, for example, the new town of Zoetermeer did not qualify for a railway connection until there were 50,000 inhabitants; by then, car infrastructure was already in place and car-dependent travel patterns had been established (141).

The different nature of the transportation and land use sectors and general lack of institutional coordination between them have limited the success of efforts to integrate the two in practice (142). The effect of land use policies on travel demand is also likely to depend on the adoption of economic instruments that increase the real costs of car travel. Otherwise, people may still choose their car over other modes of transportation. (See Chapter 4, "Urban Transportation." )

Institutional Needs for Improved Land Use

In addition to the constraints to successful land use planning mentioned above, one of the key roadblocks in developing countries is poor institutional capacity to manage urban land. Most cities in developing countries lack the information to carry out land use strategies. Urban maps are 20 to 30 years old and lack any description of entire sections of cities, particularly the burgeoning peri-urban regions (143). Conflicting approaches to land management--a formal statutory system (often left over from colonial rule), an informal system, and an indigenous system--come together within the confined space of a city (144). In addition, excessive and poorly coordinated regulations, inappropriate pricing and taxation, and land speculation all perpetuate land use problems. Improving land management in these cities is a crucial first step. Only then will cities be able to begin to resolve conflicting demands for the use and protection of land.

It is also becoming increasingly apparent that mitigating urban environmental impacts will depend on the cooperation of local and regional governments on land use issues. Yet to date few mechanisms exist to facilitate such cooperation. One such strategy is regional land use planning, now being tried in a few developed and developing world cities. Although each city has different needs and goals, the broad tenets of regional planning are similar. First, high priority is given to environmental values. Land is recognized as being valuable in its natural state and is not simply seen as raw material for urbanization. Second, rather than trying to fix problems after damage is done, efforts are made to anticipate and prevent environmental damage in the first place. Assessment of impacts, including an assessment of the possible cumulative effects of urban development, should precede and guide land use decisions. Finally, to the extent possible, planning efforts should encompass ecosystem-based units such as watersheds (145).

References and Notes

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