The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

2012 in review: How democracy is forcing itself onto the global urban agenda

Time and again this year The Global Urbanist has been compelled to denounce evictions and discrimination against poor and informal residents and workers, but have also heard the call that questions of identity cannot be sidestepped or manipulated in the management of cities. A reminder to keep democracy at the centre of the global urban agenda.

Kerwin Datu and Naik Lashermes

Kerwin Datu and Naik Lashermes

Cities: London

Topics: Property, rights and evictions, Sustainability, Labour and livelihoods, Arts and culture, Social conflict, The global urban agenda

One of our concerns as editors of The Global Urbanist is to monitor what we call the global urban agenda — the common set of priorities that most cities around the world must address to varying degrees. However we do not impose a predetermined agenda on the world's cities, nor blindly follow that set by organisations like UN-HABITAT or the World Bank. Rather, we aim to watch the global urban agenda emerge organically from the stream of contributions that we receive and publish each week, and clarify the trends. And this year a very specific agenda has emerged, a lot of it rather predictable, some quite surprising.

Development and displacement, hand in hand

This was a year in which news of evictions of the poor arrived with depressing regularity. As Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, suggested in Naples this September, this is a global phenomenon intensified by rapid economic growth and the free flow of capital looking for investment opportunities in the world's urban areas. Notably, our writers reported residents under threat in Rio de Janeiro (such as in Vila Autódromo on the proposed Olympic Park site or the old port areas sighted for redevelopment) and Lagos (notably the sublimely innovative Makoko community) and traders being pushed aside in the Gandhi Bazaar in Bangalore, the tourist trail in Hampi, the western Chinese outpost of Xining. Even wealthy American cities like San Francisco and Chicago are not above the insensitive demolition of poor communities.

an attitude that we wish we saw more of: that poor and informal communities be treated not as if they are likely always to remain as such, but as equal citizens who must be reintegrated within the circle of dignity and privilege that the middle classes of the world enjoy.

As several organisations are increasingly shouting for (among them Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Witness and Inclusive Development) we need far stronger international legal institutions to protect and enforce the human right to adequate housing equal to the speed and the volume at which this right is being trampled upon with total impunity by local and national governments around the world.

The idea that development is essentially a win-win process is a fallacy. There is always some community that suffers in every urban development project, and it is wrong to pretend that such suffering is inevitable or that there must always be sacrifices to be made for the greater good. Every development project, if it has any net benefit at all, can afford to recompense the costs that it imposes on others. The human, social and economic costs of every project can be identified and to a large extent measured and evaluated.

It is therefore essential for the progress of our cities that every development process include a programme of restitution for those who stand to suffer from it. We need to systematise this, to demand it through the force of law, to create the instruments and the institutions that make participation, compensation and restitution an automatic aspect of urban development.

The persistence of discriminatory cities

Yet these evictions and displacements are merely the acute expression of a larger phenomenon we are inclined to call discriminatory cities — cities whose laws, policies, planning processes and economic priorities are effectively structured to discriminate against poor and informal communities, to ignore their needs or restrict their ability to claim their rights as citizens, often for the purported benefit of formal businesses and residents or worse, in desperate attempts to gain the approval of foreign observers and investors. For example, Beijing is "sealing in" immigrant residents of its urban villages, Shanghai is harassing traders and motorcycle taxi drivers, Gurgaon is refusing to acknowledge or provide services to workers who drive its factories, while Johannesburg seems to be creating separate rail systems for its wealthy and poor areas and Nairobi is circumventing its congested centre rather than relieving it. We seem to be a long way from the principle that all citizens deserve the equal attention and concern of the political system that governs them.

If the question of identity has emerged so strongly in urban planning this year, it is because it reflects the need for a major overhaul of how the wider public participates in the formation of the city.

It is important to see this as discrimination, a word that carries greater legal meaning than marginalisation or exclusion. To call for an end to marginalisation carries moral weight only; to call for an end to discrimination invokes a longstanding trend of identifying discriminated communities and creating new legal instruments and institutions to protect their rights.

Clearly we believe that the global urban development community has a massive legal project to embark upon, though at the moment we still wonder how this might be initiated, given the inability of most international organisations to contravene the politics of their constituent national governments. A rare opportunity is the World Bank's "two-year process to review and update its environmental and social safeguard policies" begun in September, which we would urge readers to get their organisations involved in.

Citizens are more than just residents: putting workers centre-stage

At the same time, we are concerned that the international focus on adequate housing distorts how we understand discrimination against poor and informal communities. When we displace or demolish any community we are destroying not just homes, but also places of employment, places of education, and places of social interaction and therefore of economic support, as the above examples of marginalised traders show. Arguably we need to assert not only a right to adequate housing, but a right to adequate space so that every citizen can satisfy all the functions they carry out within the urban economy and community. This carries into the political and international dimensions: too many governments and other organisations focus on urban development as a problem of housing, neglecting to address and even to monitor our collective progress in improving the livelihoods and income levels of all communities in our cities.

We need to learn that it is counterproductive to disrupt and destroy the informal livelihoods of many to improve formal livelihood opportunities for a few. We are very proud to have worked with WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) this year to show how governments and workers can collaborate to strengthen workers' current livelihoods and improve their integration within the formal systems of the city, from new regulations securing rights for street vendors in Bhubaneswar and Durban to informal waste pickers being adopted as official waste collectors in Belo Horizonte and Pune. However there are still millions of other informal workers to whose needs governments remain insensitive, such as food sellers in Accra and home-based contract workers in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The recognition given to waste collectors in Belo Horizonte and Pune expresses an attitude that we wish we saw more of, which is that poor and informal communities be treated not as if they are likely always to remain as such, but as equal citizens and everyday participants in the functioning of the city who must be reintegrated within the circle of dignity and privilege that the middle classes of the world enjoy.

Functioning cities: when will we go further than "sustainability"?

So far this is very much a social agenda, but there remain fundamental planning and environmental questions to be addressed in the face of ongoing urbanisation and urban growth. One positive sign this year is UN-HABITAT Executive Director Joan Clos' attempt to refocus mayors' attention on the spatial planning that urban expansion demands.

While all the world is in agreement that we need to move from fossil-fuel-dependent models towards greater symbiosis with the environment, and ideas abound for rendering the city more green, more intelligent, more resilient, more liveable, we are unimpressed that nearly thirty years after the Brundtland Commission we are still searching for ways to reduce the harm we cause to the environment and our own sustainability rather than seeking to design urban systems that replicate ecological processes and produce net benefits to the environment and our resource base. The philosophy has existed for many years under many guises, most recently in the regenerative city based on circular metabolic processes, but realistically, in all but a handful of cities it remains nothing more than an attractive idea than a guiding operational principle.

Of course as a few authors have shown this year, these principles do not always require us to reinvent the city but merely to close the loops on resources and processes that already exist, such as the delightfully simple RAINS water harvesting project in Sana'a, or better engage communities already attempting the task, such as the waste collectors mentioned above.

Urban identities: an inevitable confrontation

Debates about sustainability issues are not merely technological or organisational. A perfect example is density: plainly obvious technical solutions like tall buildings become highly controversial or almost immoral in specific architectural or social contexts such asthe inner suburbs of London or Haussmannian Paris.

This exemplifies another theme that emerged this year and which caught us rather unawares, which is the question of urban identities, especially those which arise through situations of political conflict. In postwar contexts such asthe redevelopment of Martyrs' Square in Beirut, thereemergence of Mogadishu from the shadow of civil war or the reconstruction of Stari Most, the "old bridge" of Mostar, understanding the identities that exist within a city (those attached to communities as well as those attached to places within the city), respecting them, giving them expression, and resolving them where they continue to sow division, is fundamental to the healing process.

In Mostar, rebuilding the bridge has been necessary to restore a symbol that by its destruction came to represent the cohesion lost between the different ethnic and religious groups. In Beirut, the authorities redeveloping the square are seeking to renovate its identity, but it risks being an identity to which no-one adheres, therefore alienating all but a few. A better approach might be to gently destabilise the identities that exist in such a way that allows a more unifying identity to emerge naturally within the place.

But even in less violent contexts the identities and cultural perceptions that exist within a city create enormous complications that policymakers cannot ignore, as in the proposed administrative reorganisation of Greater Paris or the elaboration of a monumental landscape in Skopje. In Paris, the new metropolitan structures being discussed risk cutting across long-held attachments to individual towns and suburbs as well as to the scale of the suburb as the entry point for popular political engagement. How a city like Paris might create an efficient and modern governance structure that nevertheless harmonises with these traditional identities has lessons for many other large metropolitan areas. Put another way, how might we create multiscalar or confederate identities within our cities?

While we might be tempted to see these symbolic debates as troublesome impracticalities, it is imperative to appreciate them as the expression of real democratic concerns and engage with them accordingly as Beirut and Mostar are trying to do. The identities that arise in the public domain are produced by the various ambitions and senses of belonging held by the people that policymakers purport to serve, and a lens through which the greater public interprets any proposed interventions.

However, while policymakers' attempts to seek legitimacy for their actions by recourse to these identities is laudable, in reality their interventions within the realm of the symbolic are rarely convincing. Firstly because any such interventions are necessarily selective: to valorise certain symbols, or specific senses of belonging, is necessarily to suppress others in relative terms and therefore to exclude parts of the population from identifying with the intervention. Secondly because the technocratic realm tends to discount much that is personal, emotional, psychological, despite these being the factors through which individual support for interventions develops. The creation of identities is a bottom-up process; identities cannot be imposed, nor manipulated in any enduring way; at the most we can create conditions for their emergence. But we will always have to negotiate these identities, and are never able to simply circumscribe them.

Why identity matters so much: the democratic imperative

If the question of identity has emerged so strongly in urban planning this year, it is because it reflects the need for a major overhaul of how the wider public participates in the formation of the city. What emerges from this surprisingly insistent question of identity is a democratic agenda: how to listen to the people, since the people obviously refuse to go unheard.

This is the larger theme that emerges from these analyses: how to manage and improve our cities without cutting across the grain of them. How do we repair the disruption and displacement caused by development, how do we strengthen the rights and recognise the contributions of all communities, how do we reorganise what we have rather than destroy it through reinvention, and how do we do all of this while being who we want to be, individually and collectively? In 2013, how will we learn to accept that the people of our cities are the solution, not simply another factor to be managed?

Thank you and see you in the new year!

To all our readers, writers, partners and supporters, we thank you for your enthusiasm, your sincerity and your insight over the past twelve months. We will be making a few small changes next year that we hope will make it easier for all of you to engage more readily with these concerns through The Global Urbanist, and we welcome any ideas you may have on how to achieve this. Until then, we wish you all a wonderful holiday and a happy new year!

and Naik Lashermes are the Editors of The Global Urbanist.