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Improving Life for the Urban Under-Served Makes Cities Better for All – But That’s Not the Only Reason to Do It

Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN Habitat, at preparatory meeting for Habitat III in Surabaya, Indonesia. Photo by Anjali Mahendra

The New Urban Agenda – a vision of inclusive, resilient, sustainable cities where everyone has access to resources and economic opportunity – will be center stage next month at the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, known as Habitat III.  Held only once every 20 years, the objective of this third global gathering on urban development in Quito, Ecuador, is for countries to adopt an agenda to guide sustainable urban development over the next two decades.  Agreed at the United Nations on September 10, the Agenda created after gathering responses from the international community on multiple earlier drafts, points to the need to tackle inequality in the world’s cities as one crucial way to achieve this.

Sustainability is understood typically as being based on three pillars – equity, environment and the economy.  A new World Resources Report, Towards a More Equal City, suggests that starting with equity can help achieve gains along the other two pillars towards a sustainable city that works for all. Economic concerns often take precedence when urban policy is made, and environmental concerns have drawn attention in recent years with the focus on climate change and the potential risks to and resilience of cities. But inequality in access to services has exacerbated and has created heavy economic and environmental costs.

At a recent panel discussion to promote the World Resources Report (WRR) in Surabaya, Indonesia, urban specialists offered perspectives on equity as an entry point in moving a city along a pathway of transformative change towards greater sustainability. David Dodman, of the International Institute for Environment and Development, cited “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better”, arguing that health and social problems are worse in more unequal societies. Joseph D’ Cruz of the United Nations Development Program, emphasized that crime and conflict are reduced when there is a shared prosperity and when cities do not grow in an ‘enclave’ sort of way.  D’Cruz noted that an urban economy benefits when all residents can afford to be consumers, strengthening the overall market ecosystem.  Ajay Suri from the Cities Alliance brought up the tangible example of Agra, India, where slum upgrading, drainage improvements and increased sanitation services improved the waste management in the city, encouraging tourism and providing sustainable income for the poor.

Leave No One Behind

But while improving life for those who lack access to services makes cities better for all, that’s not the only reason to do it. Panelists were unanimous that urban change agents need to address the needs of the under-served, independent of other benefits to the city.  D’ Cruz conveyed that there is a responsibility to help the under-served – and to leave no one behind.  George Soraya of the World Bank, emphasized that development should not be directed simply at the urban wealthy. The fundamental question is:  do mayors want the poor to be actively part of the city?

The experts pointed to a number of critical factors needed to enable transformative change that starts with urban equity:

  • Government ownership. Rubbina Karruna of the UK Department for International Development, cited the commitment of 23 mayors of towns and cities in Bangladesh to improve urban sustainability.
  • Multi-sector approach. Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini offered details on the transformation of the kampungs (urban neighborhoods) in Surabaya, where there was a concerted effort to address many sectoral issues, including wastewater management, flood control, education, health and small- and medium-sized enterprise development.
  • Land tenure for marginalized city dwellers. Rose Molokoane of Shack/Slum Dwellers International asserted that when there is threat of eviction from the lack of tenure, it is difficult improve informal settlements.
  • Community participation. Molokoane emphasized that it is essential to consider the organization of the community and to involve the community in planning, using the phrase, “Nothing for us, without us.” In Kenya, people use illegal electricity connections because they lack access to it legally.  Karruna brought up the example of a community-led infrastructure finance facility in Zimbabwe, which has brought construction jobs to the community.  Communities need to be actively involved.
  • Adequate finance.  D’ Cruz said that cities must generate and manage their own finances, instead of relying solely on national or provincial transfers.

As the first World Resources Report papers roll out during Habitat III and beyond, let us hope that the importance of a more equal city is firmly rooted in the New Urban Agenda – for the benefit of the city and for transformative urban development, but most significantly because cities should leave no one behind.

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