Monday, 04 January 2016 11:56

A critical decade for cities

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By now the statistics and the narrative ought to be familiar. The world is living through a significant phase in its history. Around the world urban areas are spreading dramatically, as part of a fundamental transition away from agriculture as a major source of livelihoods. Urbanisation is cause and consequence of economic growth, offering the potential to lift people out of poverty. However, the benefits of urbanisation are not being shared, and today's cities are characterised by rising inequalities. Poverty, traditionally seen primarily as a rural condition, is urbanising rapidly.  In addition, cities have a vital role to play in adaptation and mitigation for climate change. 

Making cities more inclusive

A new paper from the World Bank reviews approaches to making cities more inclusive. It argues for an integrated approach, so that the spatial, social and economic aspects of exclusionary urbanism are all addressed, and national policy supports local initiaitives.

The paper notes how the urban poor typically are living in informal areas or in remote or hazardous locations that lack adequate infrastructure and basic services. While we usually think this means lack of water and decent sanitation, in fact living in a slum can often mean that children get no access to schooling. An appendix to the report notes that in Mumbai, 50% of slums have no access to primary schools.

Similar problems often afflict the growing numbers of people dispaced by conflicts or disasters, yet provision for displaced populations is rarely factored into urban planning. Marginalised populations struggle to access decent, formal jobs, partly due to lack of skills but also because they can only afford to live in places not well connected by public transport networks.

Slum upgrading

Slum upgrading has come to be the preferred approach over the past 20 years or so, and a strong focus for research by the World Bank that is reflected in their report. While these upgrades have undoubtedly had some local benefits (though sometimes temporary), they have had little impact on social inclusion at the city scale.

Public housing provision remains a significant response to endemic housing shortages. However, it has two significant weaknesses. First, when social housing providers seek to acquire undeveloped land by compulsory purchase, landowners sub-divide and sell it, thus creating the kind of informal settlements that the policy set out to avoid. Second, in many rapidly urbanising countries those who gain access to social housing are often the better off.

Land and urban planning

Too often, urban planning practices create exclusion. Setting generous minimum lot sizes ensures that few houses are built on scarce land, and that they are unaffordable. Downtown restrictions on building heights add to scarcity, escalate property values and push the poor even further from the rich and job opportunities. The costs of acquiring development permits can be a further obstacle.

The World Bank, amongst others, has previously argued that urban plans need to be connected to infrastructure, natual resources and hazards.  Now, the new report makes the fundamental point that upgrading slums after they have formed is not a sufficient answer to the scale of the urban challenge. Proactive urban planning is needed. It is disappointing that this recognition is not followed by more specific ideas about what this means in practice. The recommendations for regulatory frameworks for more inclusive growth are "innovative and inclusionary zoning, land use management and land tenure regularization, and mixed use development."

Though this sounds like keeping planning in its own silo, the wider message is that connections need to be made between the spatial, social and economic dimensions of urban management. So why not say it loud and clear, urban planning needs a strong link to economic development, awareness of the importance of livelihoods, and a much deeper grasp of the many dimensions of social exclusion, as well as the institutions and processes that drive land and property markets? And why not make explicit, the disparity between the economic power of the few and the much more limited power of planning authorities and local governments more generally?    

It is important to remember that exclusion is not confined to cities in the developing world. An appendix to the World Bank report points out that a quarter of workers in the USA are earning poverty-level wages, while the wealth gap is widening faster than the income gap. From the trailer parks to the penthouses, from the shrinking cities to the global hubs, just as from the informal huts to the leafy mansions in the developing world, we are now building at scale a legacy of places that will endure long after their current residents.        

Read 1316 times Last modified on Monday, 04 January 2016 14:36

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