Providing community infrastructure - urban density

Providing community infrastructure - urban density

How can we regulate the drivers that determine the distribution of urban density?


  • Uncoordinated spatial distribution is of particular significance in low- and middle-income countries, where planning regulations may be weak or weakly enforced, and results in areas with complex patterns of land tenure and land use (Dodman 2009)
  • Here, the related process of peri-urbanisation (growth in slums) is increasingly taking place. In the peri-urban interface, the boundaries between the ‘urban’ and the ‘rural’ are continually being re-negotiated, and rather than being clearly defined are characterised by transition zones (Dodman 2009)
  • Although the low income migrants and the rest of the population are complementary – one providing better income for the provision of a variety of activities and services by the other- the result is that the process of urbanisation can be unplanned and informal with frequent struggles over land use (Dodman 2009)
  • Lack of affordable serviced plots and zoning policies have often excluded the poor from being integrated with urban development, leaving them in underserviced shelters (slums) both in and on the outskirts of major cities (ACID 2009)

While an estimated three quarters of the world’s economic activity takes place in cities, three quarters of the poor live in the countryside (World Development Report on Spatial Disparities and Development, 2009)


Dodman, D. (2009) Urban Density and Climate Change

Planning for migration and land markets can help co-ordinate urban distribution

Principles for efficient urbanisation

  • Develop realistic land-use plans supported by infrastructure development, especially in rapidly growing peri-urban areas, to lower the costs of planned subdivisions
  • Avoid requirements for high minimum standards (for example, large plot sizes, waterborne sewerage) that neither the poor nor the responsible local government can afford
  • Avoid extravagant subsidies and giving away of land. Require habitants of low income areas to pay for regularised plots. Recognise that plot sales offer a unique opportunity to recover the cost of on-site infrastructure
  • Protect vacant private lands; put vacant public land to use
  • Development of a housing and mortgage market

Key: Improving policies and the institutional framework for land markets - where there is a high concentration of people and economic activities in urban areas - can lead to ‘economies’ of scale, proximity and agglomeration that can deal with congestion.

Productivity tends to increase where people and economic activities concentrate to take advantage of agglomeration economies.Expansion occurring with declining densities (urban sprawl) will in itself make per capita infrastructure costs even higher.
Basic services for households in both urban and rural areas can guarantee sustainable urbanisation and social equity, enhance living conditions, and prevent disproportionate flows of underserved rural people to the city.Planning should check sprawl. Also consider a package of lower-cost technological alternatives, such as solar panels, hand pumps, and on-site sanitation as population density falls – rollout of network infrastructure becomes prohibitive at low levels of density.

Further Reading

McLaren, R. (2009) Formulating a Sectoral Approach to Urban Land Policy: The Case of Kenya.
Land Governance in support of the Millennium Development Goals, FIG-World Bank Conference, Washington D.C.


ACID (2009) Africa’s Infrastructure: A Time for Transformation. Chapter 5, Facilitating Urbanization