Urban Transformation

Why public space planning is vital to improve slums

Isabel Cantada
Urban Planning Analyst, World Bank
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Urban Transformation?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Infrastructure is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


In recent years, there has been growing demand by cities to create viable public spaces within and for slums. Cities recognize the multitude of benefits that public spaces provide including:

  • Centers for social interaction and cultural expression;
  • Drivers of economic development and wealth creation;
  • Improved health, accessibility and safety;
  • Environmental sustainability;
  • Increased citizen involvement; and
  • Perceived sense of ownership or tenure.

Literature from various think tanks such as Project for Public Spaces and ARCHIVE Global suggest that including public spaces in the design of urban policies and programs can act as a catalyst for slum upgrading in developing countries. At the same time, slums or informal communities must be recognized as a valid and unique form of urban growth and development. It is desired that formal planning and design services develop these urban areas over time into places of higher quality living.

Unlike most public spaces in developed countries, growth and development patterns in slums are entirely different. Adopted from workshop proceedings of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, the maps below present how the use and accessibility of public space vary between formal and informal parts of a city:

For instance, informal settlements comprise of individual land appropriations and occupations followed by an incremental manner of building. This is typically done by residents, households or landlords instead of more experienced developers. Moreover, slums are characterized by their informal tenure and are described as mostly “autonomous, illegal, irregular, marginal, spontaneous, uncontrolled and unplanned.”  Although the amount of public space (12%) is comparable to those in organized residential areas (11%) or condominium buildings (13%), development is compact – resulting in high densities and narrow, winding streets (if any), corridors or pathways. There appears to be limited accessibility and an insufficient amount of open space relative to the number of residents in a given area.

Public spaces in developing countries also differ in function. They tend to be multi-layered, multidimensional entities as opposed to clearly defined zones or land uses. They serve as pathways for public transport, water supply, electricity, drainage and street lighting; venues for informal trade and commerce such as hawking and street vending; centers of religious and cultural exchange, recreation and social interaction; and are an extension of various household activities such as washing, cooking and sleeping. Not having a space that meets residents’ economic, communal and recreational needs could exacerbate the living conditions of slums and cause them to illegally encroach into privatized spaces.

Despite ongoing research of the value of public spaces, cities in developing countries continue to rely on upgrading schemes that are oversimplified, short-term and cheap. Local officials are concerned mostly with providing the bare necessities – infrastructure for water, transport, solid waste disposal and electricity, among others. But the reality is that slum communities are complex and integral to the urbanization process. And through public spaces such as streets, parks, waterfronts, markets and plazas, they play a pivotal role in the physical integration, connectivity and spatial inclusion of slums into formal systems of planning and urban governance. Over time, slums should be transformed into consolidated neighborhoods with better access to streets, services and public spaces.

To help guide local officials in the efficient and effective design of public spaces, some principles adopted from the UN-Habitat’s Streets as Tools for Urban Transformation in Slums include:

Thus, it can be argued that comprehensive thinking, design and planning of public spaces in slums help address city management issues, and contribute to community development and an improved quality of life. This link between public spaces and slums should not be overlooked in the development context as spaces overall have the inherent capacity to reshape the built environment and integrate slums into the larger urban fabric.


This post first appeared on the World Bank’s End Poverty in South Asia Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

To keep up with the Agenda subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

Author: Isabel Cantada is currently working as an urban planning analyst for the World Bank’s South Asia Urban Unit in Washington, D.C. on public spaces, affordable housing and GIS spatial analysis.

 Image: Residents are seen in the Villa 31 slum, which censuses show has grown 50 percent in the past four years to currently house some 40,000 people, near the 100-year-old railway station Retiro in the heart of Buenos Aires, February 9, 2014. REUTERS/Enrique Marcarian. 

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Cities drive global prosperity – but the way they do that is changing

Matthew Cooper and Marco Fengler

June 19, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum