Smart Cities, Habitat III and the New Urban Agenda

As we discussed in class, smart cities are cities that have the resources to support elements that attract intellectual adults and young people. A smart city will have plenty of components that attract a knowledgeable population, like innovative technology, academic events that provide access to more knowledge, museums and social events. However, I am more interested in the second half of the discussion, inclusive cities. I think that both Habitat III, including the New Urban Agenda (NUA), the Pineda article and the Asian Development Banks Inclusive Cities article speak to the importance of attracting and supporting everyone that urbanizes, not just the knowledgeable population.

All of the readings mentioned above focus on sustainable urban development and what that means for disadvantaged populations. Habitat III, which is working to achieve SDG Goal 11, is advocating for equal access, use and enjoyment of cities for everyone in this generation and future generations (2). The plan is working to readdress the way that cities “plan finance, develop, govern and manage cities” (3). The NUA is trying to change the way that cities are conceptualized so that inclusive sustainable urban development can be achieved. For example, the NUA has a call to action to help fight discrimination of many of the Major Groups, but they also included PWD (4). The agenda is striving to provide safe, accessible cities to all citizens, not just the young professionals and higher socioeconomic status (SES) residents.

One very important consideration when working towards inclusive sustainable development in cities is spatial considerations for PWD. Pineda’s article, Enabling Justice: Spatializing Disability in the Built Environment emphasizes the need for framing disabilities in respect to the environment that surrounds them (111). In order for cities to be truly inclusive, they must have spatial justice for PWD. In other words, “space is only just if it is to the advantage of the least well off stakeholder” (115). It is imperative that sustainable urban development includes PWD and the space they need to thrive, like audible cross walks, kneeling buses and curb cuts (120). PWD can live full, independent lives if their environment (in this case the city) allows it.

The Asian Development Bank article also provides an example of empowering disadvantaged communities. Through their multi-sector approach to slum rehabilitation in India, the Bank worked to provide services to citizens where they currently lived. For example, the Bank funded many projects that provided community initiated services like access to roads, rain drainage systems and low cost sanitation (29-30). Although slums in India and low income urban areas in cities like Washington DC are in some ways different, they are also quite similar. My biggest concern for developing inclusive cities is to preserve and empower the community that already exists in the city. Gentrification is a huge concern for me as we embark on a goal to involve everyone in cities. The India case study provided a powerful message to me that you can empower a community where they are, instead of relocating them to further the goals of a “smart city.” Each citizen counts in an urban area and making plans that involve the voices of the marginalized is an important step to making smart cities and inclusive cities work cohesively.

SDG’s and the HLPF

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and the High Level Political Form (HLFP) are two structures that are currently working to include persons with disabilities (PWD) into the development framework. However, the reason that PWD have historically been excluded from receiving equal access, participation and human rights stems from a long history of prejudice and stigmatization. Rimmerman details religious and genetic reasons for historically excluding PWD in his book Social Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities. He outlines the rationalization of disabilities through the Bible and Qur’an. The Bible sees PWD as sinners in need of a cure (12). The Qur’an sees PWD not as sinners, but as people with burdens that should be excused from certain tasks because of their disabilities (13). In modern day, we see that both of these interpretations have led to the exclusion and isolation of PWD. Even the Qur’an’s explanation of compassion and exception has led to beliefs that PWD are incapable of leading independent lives.

Rimmerman also outlines the horrific impact that the euthenics movement had on PWD. During the 19th century, the eugenics movement began and with it the further stigmatization of PWD. The movement encouraged only healthy, able-bodied people to reproduce (16). This idea led to forced sterilization of adults and euthanasia of “defective babies” (18-19). It was not until the late 20th century that PWD were afforded any civil rights in America (20) or treated as capable, independent people. Unfortunately, as the founder of the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative (MILI) Mr. Nay Lin Soe pointed out, today there are still huge human rights violations and engrained religious stigmas about PWD in countries like Myanmar.

From this brief history of the treatment of PWD historically and currently, it is evident that global initiatives and policies that incorporate PWD into the development framework must work to address these stigmatizations and prejudices. It is important to include the voices of PWD in development strategies because as Amartya Sen reasons, the people within a community must decide the rate and form of their globalization (240-242). It is imperative that PWD are included in the development conversation because they are the only ones who can speak to their needs and challenges for becoming full participants in this globalized world. As the international community has progressed from the UDHR and the MDG’s, which have not specific mention of PWD, to the CRPD and the SGD’s, which explicitly mention PWD, we can see that PWD are beginning to gain recognition and importance in the development framework. As we continue with forums like the HLPF, it is crucial that we include PWD in the discussion to ensure that the goal of developing a world that includes everyone is achievable.

Development Theory

Development is a broad, vague term that is comprised of a myriad of actors, institutions and a plethora of theoretical approaches. Development all too often renders images of post-earthquake Haiti or starving children in a continent that has been simplified into a country. However, as both “Development As Freedom” author Amartya Sen and “Why Nations Fail” writers Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue, development is much more complicated than the images that often surround us. According to Sen, development hinges on the individual capabilities, or freedoms, of a person to access a live that they have reason to value (18). This definition challenges the perceptions that development, and development theory, should focus solely on one indicator to measure development. Instead, development is a culmination of many factors working together to create a holistic system that allows individuals the right to access many capabilities and freedoms.

The right to access these freedoms is dependent upon the institutional foundations of countries during colonial periods (Acemoglu and Robinson, 9). While scholars have suggested a variety of other explanations for varying development levels across the globe, like the Geography Hypothesis, Culture Hypothesis and the Ignorance Hypothesis (48-67), Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the differences in a country’s level of development are heavily reliant on the political structures that formed the nation (9). During their in-depth analysis of Mexican and American political differences, they assert that it is the inclusive or extractive nature of the political, and consequently economic, institutions that set the neighbors on two drastically different development paths (74-81). One country was founded on the principals of citizen participation, land ownership and innovation, while the other was plagued with dictators, monopolies and inequality (30-37). While the citizens of Mexico are by no means helpless, their freedoms are severely trampled on by a government structure that does not allow full citizen participation in political decisions.

The importance of political structures is highlighted in both Sen and Acemoglu and Robinson’s work. They all recognize the fundamental importance of citizen participation as the cornerstone of development. If citizens cannot enjoy the benefits of inclusive political institutions, then their hopes of attaining economic or social freedoms are severely inhibited. Issues that haunt development workers, like poverty, access to markets and equal opportunities for education and healthcare are deprivations of basic capabilities that can begin to dissolve as political institutions start to structure themselves around citizens. As citizens gain a forum for discussion, communities can begin to enact policies that will positively influence their lives. This political freedom gives communities the agency they need to create a life they see value in.