We need to reframe the concept of inclusive cities.
That observation made by renowned urbanist Günter Meinert helped set the tone for a deep discussion on more equitable cities during the Daring Cities forum, a free virtual event geared for local decision-makers co-sponsored by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and the Federal City of Bonn, Germany.
Drawing on a professional career dating back to 1988 that has included several years in the field in Colombia and Bolivia and later overseeing the World Bank initiative Cities Alliance – Cities Without Slums, Meinert described urban development as “some sort of magical triangle, the corners of which are…critical realism, enthusiasm and frustration. The challenge is to keep a balance within this triangle.”
There was an overwhelming consensus from the ensuing presenters that cities play a critical role in helping to foster greater equality everywhere, whether from the developed world or emerging economies. But cities cannot do this alone, independent of other levels of government.
Negotiating how to establish more equitable power sharing between different levels of government as well as various international agencies was the “elephant in the room” at the last United Nations Habitat III conference according to Tobias Kettner, outreach officer with the World Food Program, an organization that was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “From my point of view, you can only have strong urban development if there is a great role for local government…and more democratic representation,” he said.
However, better sharing shouldn’t necessarily translate into simply giving cities more power, observed William Cobbett, current director of Cities Alliance. “I’m very much a champion of cities, but I find sometimes it seems [making cities more powerful] is the objective rather than the radical transformation of society in which cities and regional government play a role.”
What does this notion of radical transformation look like? More than anything else, “if we don’t get inequalities right…if we don’t work on the [commitment to] leave no one behind, then we will lose urban peace and stability,” predicted Tina Silbernagl, who leads various urban development and management initiatives with GIZ, the German international development agency. “Having lived and worked in South Africa, I’ve seen inequalities on a day-to-day basis and it’s heartbreaking. And that’s looking at it from a position of privilege. Imagine being on the other side. Imagine being in government and having to deal with this.”
Faced with the huge challenge of improving the livelihoods of the most vulnerable, local governments are already dealing with overstrained capacities, limited staff and financial resources which have been amplified since the outbreak of COVID-19, Silbernagl observed. In response to these potentially overwhelming challenges, “we need to look complexity in the eye and find ways to reduce and manage this challenge,” she said, referring to the seemingly endless obstacles associated with urban renewal.
One shining example she cited of breaking complexity down into manageable components vis-à-vis urban renewal is the Nelson Mandela Bay Integrated Development Plan, a five-year planning document produced by the local government tied to the goals of improving lives, boosting the economy and addressing such challenges as corruption, drought and now COVID-19.
By adopting a clear, value-based stance, Silbernagl stressed, urban leaders need to “firstly look at the areas in your city that are behind. And secondly you always need to look at integrated development and how it gets realized at the local level,” with the overarching goal of serving the common good of residents.
But the common good doesn’t always translate into media-friendly projects, “where the mayor can cut a ribbon in an opening ceremony” for a project mostly geared to wealthy people, observed Sarah Colenbrander, director of the climate and sustainability program with the Overseas Development Institute.
Cities require major infrastructure investments for everything from mass transit to sewage systems to electricity grids, Colenbrander said candidly. But she was critical of the trend whereby “urban projects are increasingly structured to meet the needs of international investors” rather than the communities these projects are meant to serve. In contrast to this approach, “national and local government need to look beyond project financing [driven by private sector interests] and think about wider tax policies, obligation debt and a broader array of instruments that can be used…to serve the city as a whole and…meet the preconditions for truly inclusive cities.”
Looking beyond our bricks and mortar mindset, Franziska Schreiber with the University of Stuttgart called on urban professionals to consider “a more emotional and sensory landscape” with respect to city building. In her capacity as researcher and lecturer with the university’s Institute of Urban Planning and Design, Schreiber said she has interviewed hundreds of citizens asking about their vision of the ideal city of the future. “They don’t talk about mixed use or building codes or the 1.5C target. They had a very different way of describing their vision,” she said. “They talked about the sound, texture and smell of the city.”
Building on this thought process, Schreiber reflected that currently “we don’t actually create cities we want to live in” – from the materials we use to the way we design public spaces to the height of buildings. “Most cities are cold and not necessarily welcoming,” she said.
To make cities more welcoming, inclusive and livable, Schreiber called on urban planners and sustainability experts to work with psychologists and sensory experts. At the moment, “they don’t talk to one another. And the result is what we see all around us.”
Arguably the most positive perspective during the session came from Max Loman, a policy advisor with GIZ, who observed that despite all of the doomsday talk, “the world has become a much better place in the past decade.” We tend to overemphasize the bad news pertaining to the complexities of such challenges as the fight against poverty, which in turn he says contributes to a sense of panic. “Without denying complexity, cities do give us a chance to break global challenges down to a much more manageable context,” he said.
In sharp contrast to this perspective, Nancy Naser Al Deen, currently pursuing a Master’s degree in urban management with the Technical University of Berlin, weighed in with the realities of the Arab Spring movement, which she witnessed firsthand, as well as the most recent uprising in Lebanon. She spoke of the challenge of creating safe spaces in cities where mounting violence is occurring and the need to somehow transform the trauma that residents of these flashpoint areas are experiencing into a process of healing. We need to be more aware of the “deep anger that comes from [citizens within these communities], who are responding to very corrupt systems.”
Dealing with corruption in these areas isn’t just a local problem. “I’m responsible, you’re responsible, we’re all responsible,” she said. “Being in a privileged position in the global north does not grant you the luxury of being apolitical.”
Mark Wessel is an urban journalist and public speaker who profiles unique city initiatives tied to sustainability, resiliency and quality of living that other communities can learn from. In addition to TheCityFix, his work has appeared in Next City, Municipal World, Cities Today and the Urban Future ‘City Changers’ blog. He also writes a regular Green Living column for Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper chain.