Back to cover

Managing Urban Spatial Growth


Background and Context

Cities grow well when they benefit from agglomeration (the proximity of firms and people to each other). Cities will be home to 2 billion new residents by 2045, and pressure to develop land in and around cities is growing, contributing to slum formation and urban sprawl. Well-managed urban spatial growth avoids disorderly growth of cities by ensuring effective agglomeration of households, firms, and public spaces, and ensuring that cities grow without the emergence of slums (World Bank 2013b). The benefits of agglomeration include reduced transportation and energy costs for households and firms, productivity increases, better opportunities for innovation, improvements in the quality of social life and social equity, and increased environmental sustainability.

This evaluation focuses on World Bank work on land administration, land-use planning, and land development as determinants of urban expansion. Land administration is the process of establishing property rights and tracking information about the ownership and value of land. It enables the functioning of land markets. Land-use planning is the allocation of land to private and public uses, including infrastructure and services. Together with urban finance and planning for resilience, it allows for efficient and sustainable land use. Land development is the transformation of land through public and private investments. It includes both urban upgrading (improving the conditions in existing slums and preventing the growth of new ones) and urban transport (integrating transportation with land use). Together, these factors contribute to sustainable, efficient, and equitable urban spatial growth. However, making urban spatial growth sustainable requires recognizing differences in historical patterns of urban development. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing urban spatial growth.

These determinants are essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the World Bank’s twin goals. Relevant SDGs linked to the management of urban spatial growth are SDG 1, which includes secure land tenure, and SDG 11, which includes both land-use efficiency and the availability of public space throughout the urban fabric. Adequate management of urban spatial growth in client countries will ultimately contribute to the twin goals of reducing extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity.

The evaluation uses a mixed methods approach. It is based on a portfolio of 527 lending operations and a focused portfolio review of 250 projects in 19 countries approved during fiscal years 2000–19. This review was complemented by an analysis of corporate and country strategies, four field-based and four desk-based case studies, staff surveys, semistructured interviews of staff and other stakeholders, and geospatial analysis of two urban transport investments.

The Relevance of World Bank Support for Managing Urban Spatial Growth

World Bank corporate urban strategies have increasingly recognized the need to focus on managing urban spatial growth. The vision in these strategies has evolved, increasingly recognizing the need to support countries with developing land markets and with planning and investing in urban growth. The 2013 Planning, Connecting, and Financing Cities framework articulates the sequencing of actions to build sustainable cities (World Bank 2013b). Planning and the administration of land use along with the provision of basic services come first and must then be coordinated with land development through transportation. What follows is financing, a dimension that, although as necessary as the other two, should be city leaders’ last concern rather than their first.

The World Bank has also developed a housing framework and relevant global and regional analytical work on urban spatial growth. The housing framework (World Bank 2020d) and other relevant analytical work reflect the global consensus on sustainable urban development. The housing framework explains that the joint housing sector work of the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank focuses on improving housing supply and demand. The World Bank has also been providing leadership over the past five years with analytical work on issues such as land regeneration, transit-oriented development, geospatial information, and the management of public spaces. However, the last World Bank urban strategy (2009) does not fully reflect World Bank experience during recent years in relation to the SDGs, the New Urban Agenda (UN 2017a), advances in technology, or lessons learned from World Bank lending operations and technical assistance.

The World Bank has taken on important global roles related to managing urban spatial growth. It has helped develop the Integrated Geospatial Information Framework, assumed custodianship of SDG indicator 1.4.2 on secure rights to land, and defined the Doing Business indicators related to the quality of land administration.

World Bank country strategies have been increasingly recognizing the importance of key determinants of urban expansion. Country strategies in 19 countries show increasing emphasis on key determinants of managing urban spatial growth. The growing focus on urban spatial growth is particularly clear in fast-urbanizing countries, where mentions of land-use planning increased from 30 percent of country strategies in 2005 to about 50 percent in 2015, and mentions of urban upgrading increased from 10 percent of country strategies in 2005 to 38 percent in 2015.

However, World Bank Country Partnership Frameworks that address urban development only address the overarching issue of urban spatial growth to a limited extent. Only 3 of 11 Country Partnership Frameworks in fast-urbanizing countries that cover urban development and were reviewed for this evaluation (Bhutan, India, and Vietnam) explicitly address managing urban spatial growth. In the other 8 cases, land administration, land-use planning, or land development are considered in the Country Partnership Frameworks but not as coherent elements for managing urban spatial growth. This highlights the need for a framework that brings together the determinants of urban spatial growth in a coherent manner.

World Bank technical assistance through Urbanization Reviews addresses the issue of urban spatial growth, but the lending portfolio includes it in the design to a much lesser extent. About 90 percent of Urbanization Reviews highlight the need to manage urban spatial growth, but only 44 percent of relevant Project Appraisal Documents in countries with Urbanization Reviews include managing urban spatial growth as an issue in the Strategic Context section, and only 4 percent of these Project Appraisal Documents allocate funds to manage urban spatial growth as a key objective.

Technical assistance through Urbanization Reviews has been a critical element to better inform national land management and land-use planning policies in client countries. World Bank advisory services and analytics have influenced key urban policies, such as China’s National New-Type Urbanization Plan (2014–2020) and state-level urban development programs in India (Vaggione 2016). In an Independent Evaluation Group survey of World Bank staff with experience in urban projects, 87 percent of task team leaders reported perceiving that Urbanization Reviews contributed to the formulation of national and subnational urban policy. Case studies show that the World Bank has contributed to national urban policies, for example, in Colombia and India, through the diagnostics and findings of the Urbanization Reviews and by enabling high-level dialogue with government and urban development institutions.

World Bank lending support does not consistently go to countries where cities are rapidly sprawling and slum populations are growing. For example, 24 percent of loans supporting land administration go to highly sprawling countries, and 26 percent of support goes to countries with low-quality land administration. About 50 percent of urban upgrading lending volume goes to cities in countries that are rapidly sprawling. By contrast, only about 24 percent of lending volume goes to countries where slum populations are growing the most.

The World Bank has not sufficiently addressed urban expansion through preventive approaches. World Bank loans support curative instead of preventive approaches, limiting the World Bank’s ability to preempt sprawl and slum formation. Only 8 percent of projects in the urban upgrading portfolio address growth through preventive approaches. Similarly, in the urban transport portfolio, only 11 percent of projects focus on land use. Preventive approaches are more cost-effective than curative approaches and are important for addressing urban spatial growth.

Effectiveness of the World Bank in Enhancing Clients’ Capacity to Manage Urban Spatial Growth

Land Administration

World Bank support for land administration has shifted from Europe and Central Asia to Africa. After a prolonged engagement since the early 1990s and improvements in the quality of land administration in countries in Europe and Central Asia, the World Bank has been shifting its support to Africa, the world’s fastest-urbanizing region. World Bank urban land administration projects in the focused portfolio have supported improving cadastre modernization, primarily through land titling and land-use certification (60 percent of projects) and strengthening institutions (57 percent of projects).

Strengthening laws and legal frameworks related to land administration takes longer than expected and is a major challenge in the focused portfolio. Only 57 percent of projects (8 of 14) in the focused portfolio were successful in addressing laws and legal frameworks. The process of strengthening laws and legal frameworks related to land administration typically goes beyond project completion because the laws often raise sensitive issues related to land, and they are set in a complex political economy that constrains implementation.

International Bank for Reconstruction and Development countries have had higher levels of success than International Development Association countries in addressing land records data management systems and improving land titling. In International Bank for Reconstruction and Development countries, 91 percent of projects successfully improved land records data management systems, and 90 percent of projects improved land titling. By contrast, International Development Association countries had lower levels of success in improving both land titling and land records management systems. These objectives were achieved in 50 percent and 67 percent of projects, respectively. This result is mainly due to lower levels of government capacity as exemplified by the World Bank support in Ghana and Mozambique.

Land-Use Planning

World Bank support for land-use planning has increased and is concentrated in Africa and Latin America. The World Bank has provided the most support to Africa, which accounts for 35 percent of land-use planning support by volume, followed by Latin America with 27 percent. By providing land-use planning support to Africa, the World Bank is addressing land-use planning in a region that needs it most.

The World Bank has primarily focused on spatial planning and enhancing the capacity of planning agencies, but it has very few projects supporting the introduction of land-based tools. Of the 118 projects in the focused land-use planning portfolio across 19 countries, 64 percent implemented spatial planning, and 47 percent aimed to enhance the capacity of planning agencies. However, land-based tools such as land readjustment were implemented in only one project in the focused portfolio. The World Bank’s low level of support for land-based tools is of concern because lack of urbanized land fosters the creation of slums.

World Bank interventions related to land-use regulation, spatial planning, and enhancing the capacity of planning agencies have generally been effective. Eighty-five percent of the targets of land regulation and land-use planning activities and 84 percent of the targets on building capacity of planning agencies have been achieved. For example, World Bank support to Colombia contributed to improved land-use regulation by introducing territorial land-use plans and establishing systematic criteria for defining and enforcing land use.

Yet, challenges remain related to sustainability and integration of land-use planning and development. Despite good results at the portfolio level, case studies raise concerns about the sustainability of spatial planning activities and institutions, including their capacity to implement provincial and local plans and to enforce land-use codes. Building infrastructure without corresponding land-use planning was an impediment to managing urban spatial growth, as revealed by three of four field case studies and highlighted in Urbanization Reviews in 10 of 15 countries.

Land Development

World Bank interventions related to land development through urban upgrading have focused on curative approaches. The urban upgrading portfolio largely focuses on consolidating built-up areas through improving access to infrastructure (80 percent of projects) and access to housing (44 percent of projects). Over 72 percent of curative projects achieved urban upgrading targets.

Although land development through urban upgrading and urban transport has been successful, data to assess the full impact of investments in land use are not available. A basic limitation in fully assessing the World Bank contribution to land development is the lack of systematic data recording the precise locations of investments. Without project locations, it is impossible to assess the impact of World Bank investments on spatial growth. Of the focused portfolio of 50 urban upgrading projects, data to understand the impact of the World Bank’s investments on land use and land markets are available only in two cases. Another obstacle is that World Bank urban upgrading projects do not systematically consider land markets, limiting their ability to measure land-value increases and their distributional impact. Of the 50 urban upgrading projects in the focused portfolio, only 6 (12 percent) considered land prices in their results frameworks. As with urban upgrading, data to assess the full impact of investments in land development through urban transport are limited. Exact project locations are not recorded in project documents, and land prices and land markets are generally not tracked.

World Bank support to land development through urban transport is limited. World Bank support for urban transport has been effective in achieving access and mobility in 83 percent and 79 percent of projects, respectively, although projects with land-use integration approaches such as transit-oriented development are few—11 percent of the urban transport portfolio—and they are less successful than access and mobility.

The impact of urban transport on land use depends on the fit between improved transportation corridors and the urban areas they serve. The Independent Evaluation Group undertook a pilot exercise in three transportation corridors financed by the World Bank in Maputo and Mumbai. The corridor development in Maputo increased horizontal density (the number of people living and working along a given corridor), stimulating the urban land market. In Mumbai, spatially disorderly land-use patterns did not contribute to increased density along two improved roads. This result suggests the importance of assessing the land-use impact of urban transport projects to better understand the World Bank’s contribution to urban growth.

Constraints on Effectiveness

There are two main external constraints on the World Bank’s effectiveness in managing urban spatial growth: the political economy and client institutional capacity. The political economy affects land administration and land-use planning at both the country and the city levels. Resistance to change in land administration is sometimes motivated by perverse incentives (such as informal payments that become possible in the context of poor regulation), but such incentives can be overcome by sustained support (for example, through legal changes and capacity building). Inflexible land-use planning regulations are also incompatible with the need to adapt to rapid urban expansion. Low client institutional capacity at a national and city level has affected several World Bank projects. In land administration, low institutional capacity is being addressed through a strong emphasis on human resources, with positive results in Europe and Central Asia. The World Bank has successfully built capacity by introducing incentives such as performance grants that condition capital investments on the establishment of land-use planning capacity.

There are three internal constraints on the World Bank’s effectiveness in urban spatial growth: lack of project location data, failure to anticipate and address urban spatial growth, and insufficient attention to land markets. First, the World Bank is ineffective in recording geospatial data to identify projects. One constraint contributing to the lack of sufficiently precise project location is that the current World Bank protocol indicates that staff should record only jurisdictional location (for example, city or neighborhood) and not geospatial location (latitude and longitude). Because of this, even when World Bank projects provide location information, it is not precise enough to enable an assessment of the World Bank’s contribution to urban spatial growth. Second, the World Bank’s ability to manage urban growth in the periphery has been constrained by its underuse of preventive urban upgrading, transit-oriented development, land-based tools, and scenario planning. Third, a lack of operational guidance requiring land-price data as part of the design framework of urban upgrading and transport projects constrains the World Bank’s ability to consider property values for urban upgrading and urban transport infrastructure investments, preventing the design of operations that contribute to equitable and efficient land markets and orderly urban expansion.


This report identifies three areas where the World Bank can enhance its relevance and effectiveness when helping countries manage urban spatial growth.

  1. Adopt a framework that links the determinants of urban expansion to pathways for managing urban spatial growth and that contributes to the achievement of SDGs 1 and 11. The framework would provide a reference for the design and delivery of lending and analytical work on urban spatial growth. It could be centered on the determinants of urban spatial growth identified in this report—land administration, land-use planning, and land development through urban upgrading and urban transport. The Urban, Disaster Risk, Resilience, and Land Global Practice could be responsible for the development and implementation of the framework, in collaboration with the Transport Global Practice and other Global Practices involved in the financing of urban infrastructure. The framework could also reflect the approach outlined in the Planning, Connecting, and Financing Cities report (World Bank 2013b) and the housing framework (World Bank 2020d), both of which articulate a comprehensive and sequenced response to help city leaders make informed decisions for sustainable urban development.
  2. Support World Bank clients to anticipate and prepare for urban spatial growth using preventive approaches, not just curative ones. In urban upgrading, the World Bank should go beyond supporting the existing built urban environment (curative approaches) and should address growth in the periphery (preventive approaches) according to country context, such as by securing rights of way and financing basic infrastructure in emerging neighborhoods in the periphery of the city to accommodate an influx of urban dwellers. In urban transport, the World Bank should expand transit-oriented development through integrated land and transportation plans and investments in urban development that facilitate the use of public transit, walking, and cycling as primary modes of transportation. In land-use planning, the World Bank should expand the use of land-based tools to assemble land and provide services for urban expansion or redevelopment.
  3. Strengthen and ensure implementation of the World Bank’s protocol to identify and record precise project locations and collect land market data necessary to support clients with managing urban spatial growth. The World Bank should strengthen its data collection protocols and increase the use of technologies such as the Geo-Enabling Initiative for Monitoring and Supervision and the Smart Supervision Application. It should also improve the collection of land market data, including mainstreaming land market assessments in World Bank investments in urban areas.