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Urban planning is a Sisyphean task of balancing multiple needs: economic, affordability, education, employment, land use and transportation. For developing cities reeling from expanding populations and poorly managed resources, the goal of sustainable development may be out of reach. In two cases, Ho Chi Min City and the urban areas of Kenya, the obstacles to achieve results are the usual suspects: conflicting interests, lack of funds, lack of direction/planning and corruption. Added to this challenge, developing cities are attracting higher rates of migration, with Ho Chi Min City growing well beyond expectations, with perhaps 2 million individuals who were intentionally left out of the census. How can a city plan for this extreme growth in a sustainable way?

Ho Chi Min City drafted a long term land use plan to protect its historic district and wetland areas from over-development. However some of these goals were quickly eclipsed by the immediate need for industrial development and housing. Solving the land crisis creates problems with transportation and restricts access to jobs and food for those living farther and farther out on the margins. Additionally development in flood-prone wetlands not only destroys them irreprably, but leaves the city more exposed to the threat of environmental catastrophe. This was the case with Hurricane Katrina; the buffer the wetlands offered coastal areas has been lost. The trade off of solving an immediate need by causing a longer-term problem seems shortsighted.

Similarly, Kenya’s exploding growth is increasing the number of urban poor, with 42% of its population living below the poverty line according to UNICEF. The informal settlements are not included in urban planning and are difficult to manage, never mind that there is a limited financial incentive to do so. Having recently visited many of Kenya’s larger cities I saw the challenges firsthand. Many cities are focused on attracting the wealthy, particularly non-Africans from NGOs and other international agencies who have larger budgets to pay for their security and services. The only streetlights in Nairobi are in the wealthy neighborhoods while the slums lay in darkness nearby. There is a sad irony that the non-Africans live in comfort and those they are there to assist live in squalor a mile away. Traffic in the cities, especially Nairobi, moves at a crawl from morning through evening; even a large scale investment might not be able to correct this problem.

How developing cities may manage to deal with their growing populations with limited planning and less resources is the challenge we face around the world. We have the opportunity to create these cities with the goals of sustainable development, but with cities growing so quickly there may not be enough time or money to proactively deal with the problem. Trying to solve it afterward will significantly more expensive and difficult to achieve. We must draft flexible, scalable and affordable urban plans to help developing cities manage the influx of new residents before the populations grow too large.

Image credit: Viet Nam National Administration of Tourism