Policy recommendations

Sustainable urbanisation is vital for cities in developing countries to adapt to and mitigate climate change without sacrificing urgent needs for socioeconomic development. Long-term planning horizons, prioritising large-scale investment in critical urban infrastructure and services, and ensuring local regulation is fit for purpose, will all be key in realising this transition. Perhaps most important is ensuring that sustainable urbanisation in developing countries is not left to cities alone, but rather prioritised by national governments, as well as global development partners. Doing so ahead of the impending urban population growth is the only affordable option—avoiding costly retrofitting in the future once settlement has already occurred.

1. Invest in sustainable urbanisation for adapting to and mitigating climate change.

Developing country cities can be vehicles not just for driving economic growth and delivering public goods, but also for supporting climate resilience and emissions reduction at scale. If managed well their density and economies of scale have the potential to provide citizens with the incomes desired without substantial loss to the environment. Thus, global organisations, national governments, and local bodies should place greater emphasis on urgently investing in the urban infrastructure and institutions that will ensure development occurs in a sustainable, liveable, and productive way.

2. Coordinate land use and building regulations to facilitate density and appropriate zoning.

Sustainable urbanisation requires coordinated land use planning to facilitate compact and connected urban form. Unplanned and sprawling cities have many negative environmental consequences. To achieve this density, policymakers should ensure that building regulations, such as minimum plot sizes, floor area ratios, and construction standards are appropriate for the context. Purposeful zoning and its enforcement, particularly around environmentally sensitive areas, are also important considerations to avoid climate-related risks—see Collier et al. (2020).

3. Concentrate on the provision of basic urban infrastructure and services—they can help cushion against climate shocks.

Core urban investments—including water and sanitation, waste management, roads, and transport infrastructure—that are needed to build liveable and productive cities, can also support building more sustainable and climate resilient cities. These local public goods and services both cushion against shocks and facilitate recovery, therefore aiding adaptation. There is scope for integrating more sustainable technologies and behaviours, as well as ecosystem services which can passively work alongside active interventions to achieve this.

4. Ensure decisions made on development and adaptation today will not commit to costly emissions and retrofitting in the future.

Decisions on the energy mix, transport and the built environment have costly, long-lasting impacts and are often difficult to reverse. In facing these challenges, it is useful to consider how today’s decisions will potentially affect both adaptation and emissions trajectories in years to come, and the associated long-term costs. In poor developing country cities, policies should aim at raising incomes and local adaptation to acute shocks, but they should also consider future costs of high emissions and associated constraints on growth. This includes supporting longer-term mitigation efforts to reduce chronic local stressors, such as air pollution and health, and benefit from growing green industry and trade (see companion piece (Delbridge et al. 2022).

5. Engage all levels of government in designing and delivering a sustainable urbanisation approach.

Delivering this will not be easy, partly because the necessary governance of climate action is complex and not just a simple urban matter that can be left to local authorities. The impacts of climate change are rarely confined within municipal boundaries. When considering the key messages, it is important to engage all levels of government, as well as the private sector and civil society. Each institution and actor should have a clear mandate within the city’s overarching strategy to drive sustainable urbanisation.