Innovation in Growing Cities to Prevent Social Exclusion


As of 2007, the world became a majority urban place. 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.

A new book launched during this year’s World Urban Forum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil highlights ways in which people across the South are shaping how their cities evolve, insisting that they will not 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,’ said one of the book’s editors, Charlotte Mathivet of Habitat International Coalition in Santiago, Chile. “The book highlights original social initiatives: protests and organizing of the urban poor, such as the pavement dwellers’ movements in Mumbai, India where people with nothing, living on the pavements of a very big city, organize themselves to struggle for their collective rights, just as the park dwellers did in Osaka, Japan.”

This first edition of Cities for All: Proposals and Experiences towards the Right to the City, comes in three languages – English, Spanish and Portuguese  – is intended to inspire people to tackle positively this fast-changing urban world.

The book’s chapters span an eclectic mix of topics, from democracy in the world’s future cities to experiences in Africa’s cities, to how the 2008 Beijing Olympics affected the metropolis, to ways of involving children in urban planning.

One innovative case study included in the book is the children’s workshops in Santiago, Chile, which aim to make a more child-friendly city by including children in the planning process.

One example of the success of a child-friendly approach has been the work of the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Enrique Peñalosa . As mayor of the city of over 6.6 million people from 1998 to 2001, he put children to the fore in planning.

“In Bogotá, our goal was to make a city for all the children,” he told Yes! magazine. “The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere. If a city is good for children, it will be good for everybody else. Over the last 80 years we have been making cities much more for cars’ mobility than for children’s happiness.”

His term in office saw the establishment or refurbishing of 1,200 parks and playgrounds, the building of three large and 10 neighbourhood libraries and the opening of 100 nurseries for children under five. He also oversaw the creation of 300 kilometres of bike lanes, the largest such network in the developing world, created the world’s longest pedestrian street, at 17 kilometres, and turned land earmarked for an eight-lane highway into a 45 kilometre green belt path.

Cities for All’s publisher, Habitat International Coalition (HIC) , says it focuses on the link between “human habitat, human rights, and dignity, together with people’s demands, capabilities, and aspirations for freedom and solidarity.”
The group works towards the creation of a theoretical and practical framework for what it calls a “right to the city.”

The cities of Africa and Asia are growing by a million people a week. If current trends continue, megacities and sprawling slums will be the hallmarks of this majority urban world. Currently in sub-Saharan Africa, 72 percent 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.

“We must think of the right to the city as a lively alternative proposal,” Mathivet said, “a banner under which social movements, academics, and social organizations are struggling against the perverse effects of neo-liberalism in cities such as the privatization of land, public spaces and services, land speculation, gentrification, forced evictions, segregation, and exclusion.”

To read this article in the UNDP newsletter "Development Challenges, South South Solutions", just click here

The following text contains the entire interview conducted by the UNDP with Charlotte Mathivet

1) We are now living through the largest increase in the world’s urban population and much of this growth is haphazard and poorly planned. It seems like a vast and over-whelming phenomenon. How can the concept of the ‘right to the city’ change this?

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. We cannot categorize the right to the city as a concept, as it will not change anything. Instead, we must think of the right to the city as a lively alternative proposal; a banner under which social movements, academics, and social organizations are struggling against the perverse effects of neoliberalism in cities such as the privatization of land, public spaces and services, land speculation, gentrification, forced evictions, segregation, and exclusion. This right to the city is based on a dynamic of process and conquest, in which social movements are the engines driving the achievements of this right.

As David Harvey argues (see pp. 22 in Cities for All), “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 phenomenon of the city is analyzed and envisioned by an incorporation of a comprehensive and interdependent vision of human rights to achieve the goal of reclaiming the city for all its inhabitants. The right to the city itself will not stop the over-whelming phenomenon of urban growth. 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 countryside in regards to growing urban populations.



2) Your book clusters together many cases from across the South. From your research, which cities offer hope and what changes did they make?

Cities are not offering hope. People are the ones who promote change and hope, struggling for a better quality of life, with justice and peace. The book does not only focus on the South – although most articles come from the South – because we wanted to show that people are facing similar problems worldwide. It is interesting to understand the links that can arise between movements, experiences, and organizations from around the world. Hope comes from learning of different experiences. For example, if a social movement in South Africa successfully 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. Cities for All was launched during the World Urban Forum, in Rio de Janeiro in March 2010, where HIC wanted to enhance civil society’s perspective of the right to the city. During the launch, and also outside the WUF in the parallel Urban Social Forum, social movements and organizations were able to meet and share their experiences (see It was through these spaces that various authors presented their articles and shared their reflections about the right to the city, and other activists from social movements also shared their own experience, like the South African shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo. These South-South links were also developed in the field as social activists from Palestine, South Africa, Brazil, went on a field visit to the Rocinha favela, the biggest informal settlement in Latin American. It was these kinds of experiences of articulation that HIC had hoped to generate through the book.

3) You highlight 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). How can these people change this situation and what actions can they take?

The expression “cities without citizens” means the exact opposite of the right to the city proposal. The city, overtaken by the interests of capital, has ceased to belong to the people and thus Henri Lefebvre advocates for the “rescue of human beings as the main protagonist of the city he has built.” 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, decisions-making, budget, public policies etc. It is possible for people to influence their own lives and the community. That is why social movements are struggling to achieve the right to the city. For instance, the Movement of Pobladores in Struggle (Movimiento de Pobladores en Lucha) works with the dwellers in a district in Santiago, Chile to participate in the planning through demonstrations, training and the election of one of their leaders in the Municipality’s Council. Indeed, the right to the city refers to the “search for solutions to the negative effects produced by globalization, privatization, scarcity of natural resources, increasing global poverty, environmental fragility and their resulting consequences for the survival of humanity and the planet.” (Cities for All, 2010). There is no miracle solution, and the right to the city is a banner around which people can organize themselves to articulate their struggles and demand social justice. We learn from various experiences that people first organize themselves in order to make claims against things that affect their daily lives, such as forced evictions. Then they are able to formulate a proposal, for example education and capacity training, and then finally they may be able to participate or influence in public policy development or in the inclusion of the right to the city in a country’s legal framework.

4) The book has several cases from Africa. The continent is experiencing renewed economic growth and vast population change. What lessons can be learned from past failures in urbanizing African cities?

First, as we all know, the principal failure in the way that Africa has been urbanized stems from the structural adjustments programs introduced by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which implemented free market policies with terrible impacts on the African social landscape. The consequences have produced a deeper gap between the city and countryside and also within the city between the rich and poor, as Joseph Fumtim, author of an article about Cameroon in Cities for All stated “In a city like Yaoundé, it is shocking to observe the contrast between, on the one hand, the construction of paid parking lots and the expansion of roads and highways, and on the other hand, the prosperity of capitalist centres of accumulation and exchanges compared with less-marketable areas (poor neighborhoods).” A very important thing to realize is that a city life is not a synonym for a better life or a miracle solution for poor people, as well as “the capitalist way of life”. This kind of miracle solution through development as promoted by the IMF and WB cannot be applied in an authoritarian manner, convincing African countries that they need to further develop. This is a very important issue to remember: African nations and their people have to find out effective solutions on their own to overcome poverty, which they are doing, without copying development models from the North. The “development” way of thinking, initially brought on by colonizers, is an illusionary ideology that has had damaging effects on the most vulnerable of Africans.

Cities for All shares several African experiences from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, and South Africa: one common topic affecting these countries is the problem of forced evictions, due to the rural exodus and growing urbanization. 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.

5) Development Challenges focuses on how people can innovate to reduce poverty. What successful examples of social innovation in cities have you discovered in your work, and how can they be applied to the new cities of the South?

I do not think that there can be a miracle solution and it is very difficult to apply social innovations to other countries without understanding the history and the social, economic, cultural and political context. Also, a lot of social initiatives based on the right to the city are coming from these “new cities of the South”. Indeed, the book highlights original social initiatives: protests and organizing of the urban poor, such as the pavement dwellers’ movements in Mumbai, India where people with nothing, living on the pavements of a very big city, organize themselves to struggle for their collective rights, just as the park dwellers did in Osaka, Japan. Another innovative experience came from the children’s workshops in Santiago, Chile, aimed at including children in urban planning in order to make a children-friendly city. Another step of the right to the city is the implementation, and the legal framework of the right to the city. As this collective right is not simply judiciable, it leads a difficult struggle to create, for example: a Ministry of Cities, participatory budget planning, and a City Statute, like in Brazil; a Right to the City Charter, like in Mexico City Federal District; or including this right within national constitutions, like in Bolivia and Ecuador.

6) You conclude with the slow city approach. How can this work in fast-growing urban areas where people are looking to quickly escape poverty, or are seeking rapid improvements to their quality of life? Would they not find a slow city approach frustrating? An illusion it may be for many, but aren’t people aspiring to the consumer lifestyle that they see in the media (house, car, nice clothes etc.)?

First, it must be made clear that 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 urbanization is uncontrollable and leads to major problems, emphasizes that the fight for the right to the city involves imagination and the desire for another possible city, depending on each particular context. The right to the city’s approach is not a dogma or a doctrine; it is a banner of struggles for social justice and human rights for all. The important element is the need to create something radically different. This book presents a great diversity of contexts from different world views, all with a consensus of wanting to change the inequality, poverty, and exclusion produced by the effects of neoliberalism and privatization, forced evictions, climate change, spatial segregation, lack of access to basic services, etc. Moreover, slow city experiences have been developed outside of wealthy European countries, for example in some small Argentine and South Korean cities. It is very important to highlight that the slow-city’s proposal is part of an alternative global proposal of the right to the city as well as of degrowth. This new paradigm, movement, and art of living challenges the dominant myth of the intellectual orthodoxy that aims to make growth, progress, and development and their concrete consequences inevitable certainties in our lives, excluding all alternatives. Alternatives do exist, as demonstrated by the right to the city. Obviously, it is a very long-term struggle to inform people about this idea, because for a long time we have all been hypnotized by the mass consumption of goods. We can no longer allow more time to pass before changing our way of thinking and living. Dangerous threats like climate change, the scarcity of raw materials, population growth, the lack of water, and pollution are already changing our lives.

7) And finally, how do you see the next decade unfolding and 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?

I am not a forecaster or an “expert”. We are all able to choose having a positive or a negative outlook on the future. Looking at the power imbalance between forces that want and act for changes – like the movements in the World Social Forum – and the financial, economic and politic powers like the upcoming G20, 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 can not 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 and that in all of our struggles for social justice, we need to strengthen the perspective of an indispensable utopia in order to build a better world. In this sense, 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. The right to the city’s proposal is an interesting way of positioning human rights in a specific space. It represents a new paradigm, aimed at a revolution of conscience and practice. It is a powerful tool to reinforce social movements and struggles and knowledge-building, which HIC has been working on for decades.