The Medellin metrocable, Colombia

The Medellin metrocable, Colombia / Patrick Benning, Deutsche Welle

I recently spent 50 agonizing minutes gently swaying several hundred feet over a forested mountain in the northeast of Medellín, Colombia. I was sharing a six-person gondola on the city’s famed Telemetro, a lift system constructed to enable poor slum dwellers on the outskirts of the city to more easily access the city center. In Spanish it’s called a teleférico; for me, it was terrifying. The nonchalance with which the other passengers in the car continued their conversation about sustainable approaches to public landscape architecture only made things worse.

We were all in town for the World Urban Forum (WUF), and had signed up for a tour of the city’s Metro system, rightly touted as a model of urban transit which, along with participatory budgeting and social programs that have brought parks, schools and libraries into the poorest neighborhoods, has helped to decrease violence and increase social equity in Medellín.

Despite my rare (as our guide was at pains to make clear) and unnerving experience, WUF’s host city serves as an example of an unlikely urban transformation—proof that committed reform, community participation, and wise investments in urban infrastructure and service delivery can mean drastically better city life for the 3.5 billion people living in cities today.

With an additional 2 billion more people projected to be developing world urbanites by 2050, this is of no small importance.

Kenya's notoriously dangerous city buses, or matatus.

Kenya’s notoriously dangerous city buses, or matatus / Elinrei

This was the seventh session of WUF, an event hosted by U.N. Habitat every two years to discuss the impact of rapid urbanization on communities, economies, climate change, and governments.

For USAID, WUF was an opportunity to showcase our new policy on Sustainable Urban Service Delivery, [pdf] to advance our thinking on how to put the policy into practice, and to hear from experts and officials around the world about their approaches to urban development challenges.

At the heart of USAID’s new policy lies this fundamental principle: Growing cities can help to drive inclusive development; but local governments, organizations and communities must work together to ensure that urban growth does not overwhelm local capacity to deliver basic services, and that the benefits of urbanization are felt by society’s most vulnerable.

The policy ensures that we are able to support cities to deliver transparent, accountable and inclusive services to the urban poor in ways that are politically and financially sustainable, promote resilience and support multi-stakeholder partnerships.

For example, our Climate Resilient Infrastructure Services [pdf] program is working to build the sustainability of five coastal and low-lying cities—Nacala, Mozambique; Piura and Trujillo, Peru; Hue, Vietnam; and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic—by helping them understand their climate vulnerabilities; develop and test techniques that can rapidly increase the climate resilience of water, transportation and other services; and better protect residents while preventing future development in high-risk areas. Together, the urban areas targeted by the program are home to more than 2.6 million people.

Paving an erosion-prone road in Nacala.

Paving an erosion-prone road in Nacala / Nora Ferm, USAID

In Nacala, Mozambique, which is prone to heavy rains and landslides, we are helping the city create a database that maps vulnerable areas and provide technicians with a better understanding of how weather and climate impact infrastructure services. This work will help to ensure that Nacala and other cities in Mozambique — projected to be the fourth most urbanized country in southern Africa by 2025 — can continue to serve as the country’s economic hubs and drivers of development.

Southern downtown section of Hue. Photo: Spencer Reeder, Cascadia Consulting

Southern downtown section of Hue / Spencer Reeder, Cascadia Consulting

In Hue, Vietnam we are helping urban planners customize and apply a tailored software tool that anticipates the effects of climate change on newly urbanizing areas and critical infrastructure. This work will help lessen the impact of events like the 2006 flood that submerged the city of 340,000 under 6 feet of flood water, paralyzing it for days. Planners have already used the tool to adjust master plans for three zones outside of the city of Hue that are expected to urbanize quickly in the coming years.

And in Afghanistan, through the Regional Afghan Municipalities Program for Urban Populations (RAMP-UP), we are working to strengthen municipalities that have long suffered from underinvestment, limited support, low revenues, and weak institutional capacity. Some of the many successes of the four regionally based projects include implementation of solid waste collection and management programs; the establishment of public-private partnerships to generate revenue and to promote economic growth; support for female entrepreneurs through business training and local craft exhibitions; and increased revenue in some municipalities by as much as 26 percent.

The many debates and conversations at WUF made clear that the work we are doing in cities like Nacala, Hue, and throughout Afghanistan and elsewhere contributes to a mounting global urban agenda that promotes equity, inclusiveness, and the participation of communities, local and national governments, and the private sector.

Cities are growing by 70 million people each year, adding urgency to our efforts. Because cities are engines of growth, if we are successful in helping to build stronger and more resilient cities, we will also be helping to bring about a world without extreme poverty.


Jeff Szuchman is a USAID AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow working on USAID’s policy on Sustainable Urban Service Delivery and the Post-2015 Development Agenda.