The largest movements of people in human history are occurring right now, as vast populations relocate to urban and semi-urban areas in pursuit of a better quality of life, or because life has become intolerable where they currently live. In Arrival City, Canadian journalist Doug Saunders finds that this movement–
–is creating new urban spaces that are this century’s focal points of conflict and change–centres of febrile settlement that will reshape our cities and reconfigure our economies. These Arrival Cities are where the next great economic and cultural boom will be born, or where the next explosion of violence will occur.
For most, this process is chaotic, unplanned, and fraught with risk, hardship, poverty and stress; yet, because so many are also able to dramatically improve their life chances, many millions will continue to follow this path.
The speed of urbanisation makes the question of how to build liveable cities increasingly urgent. A new book hopes to help people get closer to solutions to these vexing problems.
Cities for All: proposals and experiences towards the right to the city, published by Habitat International Coalition (HIC) in Santiago, Chile, and co-edited by HIC’s Ana Sugranyes and Charlotte Mathivet, was launched during this year’s World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro, and highlights ways in which urban residents across the South are defining how they would like their cities to evolve, refusing to accept social exclusion and demanding a "right to the city".
"A lot of social initiatives based on the right to the city are coming from these ‘new cities of the South’", says Mathivet. "The book highlights original social initiatives: protests and organising of the urban poor, such as the pavement dwellers’ movements in Mumbai where people with nothing, living on the pavements of a very big city, organise themselves to struggle for their collective rights, just as the park dwellers did in Osaka."
"Another innovative experience came from the children’s workshops in Santiago, aimed at including children in urban planning in order to make a children-friendly city."
The cities of Africa and Asia are growing by a million peole a week. If current trends continue, mega-cities and sprawling slums will be the hallmarks of this majority urban world. In sub-Saharan Africa, 72 per cent of the population lives in slum conditions. And by 2015, there will be 332 million slum-dwellers in Africa, with slums growing at twice the speed of cities.
"The consequences have produced a deeper gap between the city and countryside, and also within the city between the rich and poor," said Mathivet.
Cities for All details African experiences from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana and South Africa. Mathivet believes "one common topic affecting these countries is the problem of forced evictions, due to the rural exodus and growing urbanisation. It is therefore very important for the right to the city to include a perspective of linking the struggle between rural and urban movements, because problems in cities and the countryside are closely connected, especially in Africa."
And the current surge to cities in Africa raises the issue of what type of development will occur. The book argues that cities aren’t automatically a solution to the plight of the poor. Cities need to be worked on, and many of the problems faced by the South’s fast-growing cities stem from a power imbalance.
"A very important thing to realise is that a city life is not a synonym for a better life or a miracle solution for poor people, nor for the ‘capitalist’ way of life," says Mathivet. "African nations and their people have to find effective solutions on their own to overcome poverty–which they are doing–without copying development models from the North."
"In my understanding, urban growth is not haphazard or poorly planned in ‘developing’ countries. Rather, I think that urban ‘planning’ or lack of planning is done with a goal of generating more benefits for powerful interests and fewer benefits for poor people."
The book argues for a two-way relationship with the people who make up the majority of these fast-growing cities. And it says each city will have to customise its solutions.
"It is very difficult to apply social innovations to other countries without understanding the history and the social, economic, cultural and political context," says Mathivet.
"Hope comes from learning of different experiences. For example, if a social movement in South Africa succsesfully avoided an eviction from a slum, it may help another social movement in Brazil to strengthen its own strategy. One of the book’s goals was to articulate the various South-South experiences and enhance the links between different regions."
In one chapter, contributor David Harvey argues that "the right to the city is not simply the right to what already exists in the city; it is also the right to transform the city into something radically different."
"The right to the city itself will not stop the over-whelming phenomenon of urban growth," believes Mathivet. "The consequences produced by implementing this collective right would rather change people’s daily lives by achieving more equality in cities as well as in the relationship between the city and coutnryside in regards to growing urban populations."
Cities for All highlights the existence of ‘cities without citizens’: the vast numbers of slum dwellers and the poor who live mostly ignored by authorities (unless they are in the way of commercial development).
"The expression ‘cities without citizens’ means the exact opposite of the right to the city proposal," Mathivet says. "This alternative to the present global paradigm proposes to allow people to participate in the process of creating the city in terms of urban planning, decision-making, budget, public policies, etc. It is possible for people to influence their own lives and the community."
"There is no miracle solution, and the right to the city is a banner around which people can organise themselves to articulate their struggles and demand social justice."
The book concludes by arguing for the advantages of a ‘slow city’ approach. But how does this work in fast-growing urban areas where people are looking to quickly escape poverty, or are seeking rapid improvements to their quality oflife? Would they not find a slow city approach frustrating?
Mathivet believes a leap of imagination is required: "Cities for All is not intended to be a recipe book. The slow city experience was chosen as a conclusion to the book in order to present a different approach, but not to propose a clear solution to follow. Concluding with the slow city experience, which is radically different and difficult to apply in African and Asian cities, where the spread of urbanisation is uncontrollable and leads to major problems, emphasises that the fight for the right to the city involves imagination and the desire for another possible city…
"Moreover, slow city experiences have been developed otuside of wealthy European countries, for example in some small Argentine and South Korean cities."
And with the coming decade unfolding, what will cities in the South be like? Are we on the cusp of a new, dark age akin to the misery of Europe’s cities during the industrial revolution?
Mathivet acknowledges that "we can see a dark future where the interests of the most vulnerable will not be the priority. However, looking at the experiences by and for the people, we cannot consider them poor, but rich of knowledge, cognitive capital, and with courage to change their lives and their communities, through self-management and autonomy.
"Cities for All aimed to show this richness … the challenges are for civil society to deepen links between different movements to build a stronger global strategy, during events like the next World Social Forum in Dakar, February 2011."
David South is an international development consultant and writer. He writes the Development Challenges: South-South solutions e-newsletter for UNDP’s Special Unit for South-South Cooperation. He led the Communications Office for the UN in Ulaanbaatar from 1997 to 1999 and has worked for the UN in South Africa, Turkmenistan and ukraine.
The Special Unit for South-South Cooperation is mandated to promote, coordinate and support South-South and triangular cooperation on a global and UN-systemwide basis.
This story is adapted from a piece in the July 2010 edition of Development Challenges.