April 19th 2010

Cities having a go

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I’m sitting here in London with fingers crossed –  on Friday I’m due to fly to Chicago, a city I haven’t been to since I hitch-hiked round the States, um, quite a few years ago… I keep looking at the web to see what mood the Icelandic Gods are in, and whether they will relent in time to let me fly.

My reason for travel – our world organisation of cities, UCLG, has its Executive Bureau meeting there, at the invitation of Mayor Daley, and I am helping with the planning of UCLG’s City Leaders Summit, hosted by Mexico City in November.

Meanwhile I have been watching the amazing BBC TV documentary“Welcome to Lagos” which looks at the hard and enterprising lives of that mega-city’s poor, including the scavengers on the city’s rubbish dumps… an echo of the dust heaps evoked by Dickens in “Our Mutual Friend”, plus a practical demonstration of how to live the EU’s waste hierarchy (reuse, recycle…).  Some think today’s Lagos is the reality of tomorrow’s city, and that we should accept and celebrate this.  I am not convinced by this argument, however much we admire the resilience of the Lagos-ians, and the commitment of their mayor.

What do Chicago and Lagos have in common?  Well, for a start both have names with the letters A-G-O. .  Having A Go, energy, survival, creation… Both are great cities built on enterprise and energy… and cities are the hot topic of the moment in development.  The World Bank has recently published its 10 year Urban Strategy, “Systems of Cities”, and the bi-annual World Urban Forum, organised by UN Habitat and partners, has just taken place in Rio de Janeiro, on the theme “the right to the city – bridging the urban divide.”

Alas, and ironically, just days after the Forum finished, terrible rainstorms hit Rio and 200 poor slum-dwellers died when mudslides destroyed their vulnerable houses – showing once again how wide the urban divide still is.

And how we deal with urban growth, and especially with the urban divide between rich and poor, will go a long way to determine our planet’s future.   The basic facts are well known.  World population will grow from around 6.5 billion today to 9 billion in 2050.  Today, just over half of humankind live in urban areas.

Over the next 20 years, the urban population is likely to grow by another 2 billion, and the urban populations of South Asia and Africa are likely to double.  Today there are just under one billion slum-dwellers – so we face a huge task in providing decent, liveable cities for the future.

The World Bank’s report accentuates the positive in this relentless urban shift.  For too long, it says, governments have looked on urbanization as a negative thing to oppose, whereas density and “agglomeration” are plus points for economic development and for sustainability – if we get the policy and planning issues right, and if we look at clusters of cities and industries, not taking each in isolation.  Higher Density, shorter Distances, fewer Divisions – that is the Bank’s recipe.

In 2004, I was a member of the UN Millennium Project’s Task Force on how to meet the (rather modest) MDG target to improve the lives of at least 100 million slum-dwellers.  Our report, “A home in the city”, set out the key steps that are needed – and these remain entirely valid.  For example,

  • Recognize that the urban poor are active agents, not passive beneficiaries of development
  • Improve urban governance, recognize the ‘right to the city” and plan in advance for new development
  • Support and enact pro-poor policies, providing security of tenure for informal settlements, infrastructure – especially water, sanitation and affordable public transport – and avoid marginalization of the urban poor
  • Mobilize resources and investments – financial, of course, but also “human resources” – education, training, community development – plus land resources, with land use designation for low-income housing
  • Empower local action, including supporting networks of all the different actors – the slum-dwellers themselves, of course, but also local authorities and others.

The World Bank’s report includes almost all of these points – even a belated recognition that its traditional “enabling markets approach” had failed to deliver housing markets in which everyone can be decently housed at a reasonable price.

It will take a huge effort to turn these policy proposals into real practice – and city governments in lower income countries must be better financed, and with more powers if they are to have a chance of success.   But we cannot afford not to have “a go”. In L-ago-s and everywhere.


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