Skip to main content

5 steps to move toward inclusive cities

Striking with indiscriminate intensity, Hurricane Matthew blew through the Caribbean and the eastern United States in late September. The Category 4 storm plowed the U.S. Gulf Coast with winds as high as 106 miles per hour, heavy rainfall and floods. After the storm, at least 1,000 people had been killed and more than $4 billion of damage was incurred.

While the storm may have been blind to its victims’ social and economic standing, urban design was not. Unsurprisingly, damages were felt disproportionately among the poor. During previous storms, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005, poorer people were more likely than the rich to live in high-risk areas and in inadequately constructed homes. They also were more often at the mercy of the city’s leadership for evacuation, given their dependence on public transportation. After past disasters, poorer residents were less able to relocate, were less likely to have access to decision makers and had little say in new planning designs. The story likely will be the same for Hurricane Matthew.

Crises such as these reveal dramatic social and economic inequity inherent in modern urban systems. But the reality is that this underlying injustice is present every day throughout cities worldwide. How can we move beyond urban inequity?

"There is an urgent need for a transformative urban future that is socially just, inclusive and ecologically viable," wrote contributing authors James Jarvie and Richard Friend in Worldwatch’s "Can a City Be Sustainable? (State of the World)."

That’s why this year’s theme for World Cities Day (Oct. 31) — "inclusive cities, shared development" — and the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, are critical to steering the global conversation toward sustainability. To celebrate this global discussion, we’re sharing five recommendations based on Jarvie and Friend’s chapter, "Urbanization, Inclusion, and Social Justice."

1. Address climate change and urbanization together

"The combination of urbanization and climate change presents a complex and dangerous problem," wrote Jarvie and Friend. As cities grow, especially along the coasts, decision makers will need to rein in competing interests and values, prioritizing climate-related adaptation.

Climate change disproportionately affects the poor in cities. As cities grow, poor residents often expand informal settlements, including by setting up makeshift shelters in flood-prone areas. These areas, already limited in their access to public services, are increasingly vulnerable as extreme weather events place growing strain on people’s ability to obtain water and food, sanitation and electricity.

Luckily, solutions to climate change often positively impact poor communities. Creating high-density, mixed-use communities with effective public transportation, for example, not only reduces emissions but also increases access to jobs and services.

Creating high-density, mixed-use communities with effective public transportation not only reduces emissions but also increases access to jobs and services.

2. Measure poverty accurately and address it effectively

"Urban poverty is increasingly recognized as having been underestimated in both its scale and its depth," wrote Jarvie and Friend. This underestimation is a result of both gaps in the methods and indicators used to measure poverty and limited statistics on who counts as an urban resident (for example, migrants).

To get a fuller picture of inequity in cities, tools such as the Multidimensional Poverty Index, developed by the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), measure multiple factors of poverty. In addition to income and expenditure, this tool assesses rights and participation in planning and decision-making processes, access to and control over public goods and services, and environmental safety. Additionally, city residents themselves must be involved in the assessment process and in identifying appropriate indicators of poverty and well-being.

"Understanding urban poverty more clearly is a critical first step in building equity and inclusion, but it often is ignored," wrote Jarvie and Friend.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, UNDP found that 16 percent of residents qualified as poor, despite the official definition reporting that no one was poor. Because services such as water, toilets and health care were much more expensive in the cities than in the countryside, income alone was not an accurate measure of poverty.

3. Strengthen land-use planning and governance

In cities with weak governance, powerful elites shape many decisions about land use. In these cities, "planning" is often a retrospective alteration of the map after changes on the ground already have occurred.

Examples of this influence can be seen in Asia, which is urbanizing rapidly. In Bangkok, Thailand, high levels of speculation targeted low-value, flood-prone land for investment and conversion, despite such land being designated as green space in order to protect the city from floods. During dramatic floods in 2011, many of the most heavily affected factories and housing estates were in these areas.

Problematic placements of homes and major infrastructure (such as the flood-prone Suvannabhumi Airport in Thailand and the Soekarno Hatta Airport in Indonesia) result from decisions made by exclusive alliances focusing on short-term gains and ignore the risk to citizens and their assets. 

In cities with weak governance ... 'planning' is often a retrospective alteration of the map after changes on the ground already have occurred.

4. Support public infrastructure and services

"The inability of cities to provide needed urban services is all too common," wrote Jarvie and Friend. Worldwide, 150 million people live in cities with persistent water shortages. The most traffic-congested urban area, Indonesia’s capital Jakarta and its surrounding metropolitan area (with 28 million residents), only now is starting to build a mass transit system.

The lack of basic infrastructure divides the rich and the poor, as private sector interests fill the service vacuum. In Jakarta, for example, the water supply system serves mostly upper- and middle-class areas. When lower-income households cannot depend on wells or rainwater, privately owned supplies — such as water vendors, bottled water or privatized local water networks — strain the resources of the poorest.

"Slum residents earning around $2 a day often pay half of this income to vendors carrying potable water for drinking and cooking into areas off the water grid," wrote Jarvie and Friend.

All too often, the governance mechanisms that should guide public investment are lacking. Decisions on public infrastructure and services must be transparent, decision makers must be accountable and development must prioritize poorer people’s needs and interests. 

The lack of basic infrastructure divides the rich and the poor, as private sector interests fill the service vacuum.

5. Grow the democratic process and the right to information, participation and justice

"Governing conditions increasingly favor small, powerful groups with limited interest in transparency, accountability and checks and balances," write Jarvie and Friend. "The public, meanwhile, is denied access to information about environmental monitoring and zoning and investment plans."

It’s not surprising, then, that city development planning often takes its greatest toll on the unrepresented poor. Slum communities in Jakarta were displaced to improve city drainage. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, favela residents felt that Olympic development made them the target of "social cleansing." In Bangkok, new transport systems have led to evictions, pushing poorer residents out.

It is time for the Right to the City idea to come into the core of cities’ governance. Through this frame, cities would recognize residents’ rights as citizens to quality of life, safe environments and public spaces, as well as to housing and social and cultural services. This approach would be strengthened by other international commitments, such as the Access Rights defined in Principle 10 (PDF) of the 1992 Rio Declaration — which promises access to information, participation in decision making and access to redress and remedy. 

What now?

"The biggest challenge to a transformative urban agenda is improving governance to achieve sustainability goals in places where it is currently dysfunctional, corrupt, inefficient, and/or incompetent," write Jarvie and Friend.

Transformation will depend on transparency and informed debate. Citizens will need to be involved in government planning processes. When going ahead with new projects, cities should be able to answer, when asked, who will benefit and who authorized the measure.

"This is a challenge that citizens also must take on themselves," wrote Jarvie and Friend. "Addressing inclusion and social justice in the developing world’s new and expanding cities will need to be done via persuasion, advocacy, and finding common ground with finance and investment mechanisms that too rarely are engaged."

This story first appeared on:


More on this topic