News: Cities must "grow up" to survive: research

Feb 1, 2019

Urban areas could be in trouble if they fail to grow up rather than outward. Rampant speculation, poor land records and corrupt or weak implementation of regulations imply that cities are utilizing land inefficiently, which will increase more environmental risk and inequality among its residents. 

Expected to grow by 80 percent by the end of the next decade, urban areas could be in trouble if they fail to grow up rather than outward, reported Reuters citing a new report from Yale University and the World Resources Institute.

However, rampant speculation, poor land records and corrupt or weak implementation of regulations implies that cities are utilizing land inefficiently – increasing environmental risk and inequality as new residents take it upon themselves to resolve their problems, noted co-author Anjali Mahendra.

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“We talk about flooding in Jakarta and Indian cities, but people don’t tie any of this back to land use. But now there’s enough evidence that all of this is occurring because of over-development where services aren’t available,” said Mahendra, director of research at the institute’s Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities.

She explained that cities that grow at the behest of developers instead of being guided by policy result in development at the periphery.

This type of development usually eats into forest or agricultural lands and expands into areas which are far from jobs and not connected to municipal services such as public transit and water.

The report noted that access to services significantly drops just 5km from most city centres.

The researchers in this study used a first-ever technique to combine satellite images monitoring how 499 of the biggest cities in the developing world expanded outwards with radar data of how these cities also grew upwards.

The idea was that while horizontal growth is necessary, it is less efficient than vertical growth which ensures that new developments still have access to city services.

Past research usually looked at outward growth only and ignored “inner-city redevelopment and changes in density”, stated co-author Karen Seto of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

The study found that among developing economies, vertical growth is almost confined to Chinese cities, while African and South Asian cities are seeing very little of it.

This is a concern considering that about 90 percent of urbanisation through 2030 is expected to happen in Asia and Africa.

With this, the international community has begun to discuss these issues, with some cities offering strong models on how to respond on these trends, said Mahendra.

Johannesburg and Mexico City, for instance, offer incentives only for developments within certain pre-defined areas in the city, while Thailand passed a law that allows new development only in areas where city services exist.

“But that’s very, very rare in the Global South, where it’s still very much private developer-led, outside of the purview of land regulations – if they even exist,” she added.

To know more about the master plans for different areas in Singapore, check out PropertyGuru AreaInsider


Romesh Navaratnarajah, Senior Editor at PropertyGuru, edited this story. To contact him about this or other stories, email

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