Inclusive Cities and the Urban Poor

Just over a month ago, in October, the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development was held in Quito, Ecuador. Often referred to simply as Habitat III, this event attracted some 30,000 people from 167 countries with the purpose of concluding the adoption of the New Urban Agenda. The New Urban Agenda is an “action-oriented document” that outlines the methods and practices the global community should follow in the quest to achieve sustainable urban development. The document pushes for cooperation between all relevant stakeholders and urban actors in both the private and public sectors.  This conference is the third of its type, following Habitat I in 1976 and Habitat II in 1996. With the urban population constituting over half of the total global population and continuing to grow at a steady rate, urban development is an increasingly important topic. While there are many aspects of this development, the one I find most interesting is the idea of “inclusive cities.”

Inclusive development seeks to ensure no groups are excluded in the development process. Commonly accepted marginalized groups include women, children, and persons with disabilities. In a report entitled “Inclusive Cities”, published by the Asian Development Bank, calls for the explicit inclusion of poor populations in urban development. In the introduction, authors Michael Lindfield and Florian Steinberg argue for the Asian community to focus on addressing not only urbanization but more importantly the “urbanization of poverty” (2). This term mainly has to do with the major consequence of urbanization: increasing slum populations.

After living and working in Nairobi for eight months, slum conditions and the matter of addressing these settlements without negatively affecting their populations has been an issue of great interest to me. One story that always perplexed me was the failed attempt by the Kenyan government to resettle residents of informal settlements to brand new apartment complexes. While it seemed, in theory, to be a great plan, it was actually a huge failure. Most people who were relocated ended up moving back to their original homes where they felt comfortable and knew there would be a sense of community, among several other additional reasons. The relocation plan failed to take the needs and wants of the slum communities into account, and instead, officials thought they knew what would be best. The New Urban Agenda plans to improve upon these cases of exclusionary decision-making processes by promoting approaches that involve various stakeholders who can contribute more rounded and inclusive practices. While processes like Habitat 3 and the New Urban Agenda are becoming increasingly open to participation, it is unclear just how much representation there is from the urban poor, which will likely pose problems similar to the case in Nairobi as nations move forward with urban development plans. To summarize this topic with a quote,

“If cities do not begin to deal more constructively with poverty, poverty may begin to deal more destructively with cities”

-1975, World Bank President, Robert McNamara