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Inequality in cities: an issue at the heart of our New Urban Agenda

Cities have the responsibility to manage many aspects of urban life, from the provision of basic services and job creation to safety and security. They must also plan in a way that acknowledges and addresses inequality as a very real and growing urban issue.

Addressing inequality is a critical part of successfully implementing the New Urban Agenda, the global framework for sustainable urbanization that nations are adopting at Habitat III in Quito. The New Urban Agenda recognizes that eradicating all forms and dimensions of poverty is a prerequisite for sustainable development.

The scale of the problem is significant. While global and national poverty is declining, the rate of poverty is growing in urban areas in parallel with rapid urbanization. In cities in the global south, 70 percent of residents lack one or more core service. This means they have to fend for themselves, which contributes to overuse, congestion and overall system inefficiencies.

Inequality itself is also a complex issue that has many different dimensions that go beyond financial disparities. Within cities, there are imbalances between neighborhoods, ethnic groups and genders with respect to land tenure security, water resource provision, access to employment and proximity to public transport. These issues are often divided along the lines of poverty, but many interrelated factors pay a part.

Inequality in cities is not easy to tackle, particularly given that cities experiencing rapid urbanization also have the fewest resources to confront this challenge. As compared to northern cities, cities in the global south have a comparatively lower budget per capita and may be situated in stagnant economies.

A side event organized by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and the World Resources Institute (WRI) on the first day of Habitat III brought the issue of inequality to the fore.

WRI has zeroed in on inequality in cities with the launch of its timely report Towards a More Equal City at Habitat III. The report examines whether meeting the needs of underserved populations can create more sustainable cities, and explores factors that contribute to true transformations in urban areas.

As Victory Beard of WRI explained, cities are under great pressure to provide a range of services to residents. In doing so, they have to be cautious to avoid decisions that lock them into patterns that may exacerbate or create disparities. Will the city be sprawling or compact? Will slums be moved to the periphery? Decisions taken on these questions can lock cities into sustainable or unsustainable patterns.

In its report, WRI examined Medellin, Colombia as a city that has undergone a significant transformation. Medellin was once a city on the decline, with rising inequality, after losing many jobs to the textile industry. They faced extreme levels of violence, high black market activity and rising poverty.

The city responded aptly to these challenges and turned around their development trajectory. One of their major innovations was rather quite simple yet transformative: they placed metrocar cables to link informal settlements on the city periphery with jobs available in the city center.

The WRI has found several common traits among cities like Medellin that have managed to spur tangible transformations. They have strong visionary local leadership, a coalition of urban change agents, access to financial resources and capacity to plan, manage and sustain positive change over time.

Maimunah Shariff, Municipal President of Sberang Parai, Malaysia and Pam O´Connor, Councilor of Santa Monica, United States responded from the perspective of visionary local leaders that WRI referenced. As Councilor O’Connor explained, the City of Santa Monica has taken the issue of inequality to heart, using a data-driven well-being index to evaluate differences between neighborhoods and groups. This information enables the city to identify factors that contribute to well-being and to target their resources accordingly. “We are ensuring everyone has the opportunity to thrive in Santa Monika,” said Councilor O’Connor.

In Sberang Parai, Municipal President Sharif is grappling with an important question: how to incorporate the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals – and their strong emphasis on inequality – into day-to-day operations and long term planning in cities. Sberang Parai has already taken steps to foster equitable planning process through a process of gender-sensitive, participatory budgeting – a purely ground-up initiative by the city that was not informed by global frameworks.

With the New Urban Agenda, there is an opportunity for more cities to focus on inequality, but the road forward may need a stronger guiding roadmap for cities to follow as they consider what these global frameworks really mean.

Overall, the New Urban Agenda provides a good starting point for action on inequality and other urban challenges. However, as ICLEI stated during this session, there is further action to be taken.

As Gino Van Begin, Secretary General of ICLEI, explained, the New Urban Agenda text is fantastic in the sense that together various concepts, ideas and visions for urban transformation. ICLEI welcomes the document and is happy that diplomats embrace the concepts that local governments have used and understood for years.

But does it respond to the challenges? Not yet, according to ICLEI. ICLEI would have liked to see stronger commitments from the nations as to how they are going to help cities to achieve the principles New Urban Agenda, inequality included.

Nevertheless, the next two years will involve process of reviewing and adjusting the New Urban Agenda. It will allow, through consultation with local governments, their networks and researchers like WRI, to help nations craft specific action steps.

This blog post is based on a side event at Habitat III organized by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and the World Resources Institute.

The statistics on inequality were presented by the World Resources Institute during this side event.