Although we’ve become a bit jaded with the lofty humanitarian goals pronounced in large international development conferences, this year’s World Urban Forum (the 7th in the series, or “WUF7”) gave me a bit more cause than usual to sit up and take notice. The World Urban Forum is an event convened every two years by the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) to showcase and debate the predicament of planetary urbanization. Upheld for its metamorphosis from one of the world’s most crime-ridden cities to an exemplar of urban safety and socially conscious, sustainable transportation planning, the city of Medellín, Colombia was host to this year’s conference, held from April 5-11, 2014. Drawing over 20,000 participants from governments, international financial institutions, academia, civil society, activist organizations, and the private sector across the Global North and South in hundreds of parallel events, roundtables, and assemblies, WUF7 was dedicated to the theme of “Urban Equity in Development—Cities for Life”. What was the content and purpose of such a slogan? What was emphasized and what was elided in this bold agenda?
By now everyone is likely familiar with the oft-repeated statistic that the world is over half urban. More mindboggling, perhaps, is that we will add 2.6 billion people to cities over the next 40 years—mostly through natural increases but also through rural outmigration—making the world 70% urban by 2050. The bulk of new urban population growth will be in Sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, with an increasing number of people across the class spectrum settling in peripheral and suburban areas in both megacities and smaller towns. While urbanization has catalyzed relatively greater access to health care, education, and employment for some groups, it has also resulted in intensifying socio-spatial and socio-economic inequalities. Perhaps most iconic for its staggering contrasts—due in no small part to the popularity of films and books such as Slumdog Millionaire and Behind the Beautiful Forevers—is the city of Mumbai, India, in which substandard housing (“slums”) and inadequate water and sanitation co-exist with the world’s first single family $1 billion dollar mansion owned by the country’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani.
One of the loudest messages of WUF7 as seen through its concept paper was that such sharp inequalities (defined as the lack of universal human rights) and inequities (defined as the lack of a level playing field for accessing opportunities) are not just harmful for the poor—who are increasingly concentrated in cities—but also impede “all aspects of human development” (p. 3). Cities that are growing more unequal are also becoming more vulnerable to disasters and climate change, as numerous examples in developing Asia, Latin America, and United States have revealed over the last decade.
In other words, unequal cities are all-around inefficient, politically volatile, unsafe, and unsustainable, and just plain bad for human development.
The recognition that inequality is detrimental to overall human well-being is a notable shift away from decades of mainstream development policy guided by trickle-down economics, fiscal austerity, and macroeconomic “adjustment” in which growth and equity were seen as antithetical to each other—and the former much more of a policy goal than the latter. As the concept paper notes, “equity has been on the fringes of the development policy agenda for a long time” and the “Washington Consensus still prevail[s] in many minds and governments” (p. 2). While widening economic disparities aren’t new, “talking about them is”, as an Atlantic article recently put it in the wake of the publication of French economist Thomas Piketty’s path-breaking new book on the history of economic inequality: Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Given the importance of the production of uneven urban space to the expansion of capitalism, it is a welcome change that the world’s largest urban conference has descended upon the themes of equality and equity this year.
“Urban equity in development”, then, is supposed to be a framework for guiding decision-makers to enhance livability for all, not just the few. It suggests that “no one should be penalized for where they live, the way they think or believe, or the way they look” and “basic services should be available to everyone” (p. 4). The ideal of “cities for life”—purportedly embraced by Medellín’s planners for some time now—further provides a way to “deeply rethink pathways leading to sustainable lifestyles” (p. 5) because it focuses attention on the “fundamental problems of humanity” (p. 5).
There is much that is appealing about such existential language, particularly its grounding in principles of human rights and social justice. However, missing from discussions on urban inequality, not just on the WUF stage but also more generally in discussions about cities, is a clear picture of the political economy of urban development. There is simply too little analysis on the grounded political processes and power relations that produce informal settlements, environmental risks, and unsafe neighborhoods. In a recent Tedx talk I gave at American University, I argued that we have a poor understanding of how cities are actually developing, especially at the outskirts—and “slums” simply does not do justice to the variety of informal processes at the urban periphery. Sweeping statements about eradicating urban inequality are premised on very thin understandings of what that inequality looks like and what works in addressing urban challenges. For instance, research has shown that the reasons for decreased crime and drug trafficking in Medellín (the star in this year’s WUF7) are complex and cannot be attributed to greater police presence or novel infrastructure projects in low-income settlements alone. Informal treaties negotiated by mafia gangs may have had a greater impact on stemming homicides. While such research findings may make people uncomfortable, it is crucial that we do not lose sight of the messy everyday processes that undergird cities if we are to truly build more equitable and livable cities.