Real world mix of anger, frustration and also optimism at Inclusive Cities session

We need to reframe the concept of inclusive cities. 

That observation made by renowned urbanist Günter Meinert helped set the tone for the ensuing two-and-a-half-hour discussion which took place during the Inclusive Cities session at Daring Cities. 

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 which are.. critical realism, enthusiasm and frustration. The challenge is to keep a balance within this triangle.”

From a realist’s perspective, 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 (WFP), an organization that was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its work. “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, director of Brussels-based 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. “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 livelihood of those 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 (NMB) Integrated Development Plan, a five-year planning document produced by the NMB metropolis tied to the goals of improving lives, boosting the local economy and addressing such challenges as corruption, drought and now COVID-19. 

By adopting a clear, value-based stance, Silbernagl stressed the need for urban leaders 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, the 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.”

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… 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  psychologists and sensory experts to work with sustainability experts and urban planners. 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,” adding that 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,” at the neighbourhood level, he said. 

In sharp contrast to this perspective, Nancy Naser Al Deen, currently pursuing a masters degree in urban management with the Technical University of Berlin, weighed in with the realities of the Arab Spring Movement, which she witnessed first hand, 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. She added that 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.”

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