Deprivation or super-efficiency: a tale of two kinds of city

David Satterthwaite

Cities can be the best and the worst places to live. Where local governments provide key infrastructure, there can be a high quality of urban life. But where municipal administrations are found wanting, life can be hard. Slum-dwellers are now forming federations, improving their homes and constructing their own basic services, offering local governments new kinds of partnerships, writes David Satterthwaite

More than half the world’s population now lives in urban areas and it is a proportion that continues to rise. Urban centres concentrate most of the world’s new investments and innovations in products and services. All the wealthiest nations are predominantly urban and, equally, economic success for any nation in Africa, Asia and Latin America is associated with urbanisation. But does the crowding of people into cities also bring social advances? Or does it simply condemn an increasing percentage of the world’s population to living in congested, deprived and often dangerous so-called ‘slums’?

Around one in seven of the world’s population lives in urban tenements or informal settlements that lack reliable piped water supplies and good provision for sanitation, drainage, health care, schools and other essential services. Their inhabitants may be barred from electoral registers and schools because they have no legal address. Many are under constant threat of eviction. What does urbanisation mean for them? And, more generally, for their health?

Many cities feature among the world’s healthiest places to live and work, as shown by the very high life expectancies and very low levels of premature death (especially for infants, children and mothers). But many other cities today have life expectancies as low as the most smog-filled, unhealthy Victorian cities of 150 years ago. In cities with no sewers or drains, for example, the proportion of children who die before their fifth birthday can be 40 times higher than it should be.

There are also dramatic contrasts between cities in the quality of their environments – at home, at work and on the street. Cities concentrate people, industries and motor vehicles along with all the air and water pollution and solid wastes they generate. They can be managed, as shown by those with high quality environments like Copenhagen, Paris, Amsterdam and Stockholm, but where they are not managed well, they become among the world’s most polluted places.

Successful cities grow because they provide economies of scale and agglomeration for businesses, as well as large, diverse and easily accessed markets. Urbanisation is driven by the increase in the proportion of a nation’s economy generated by industry and services (most of which are in urban areas) and the resultant increase in the proportion of the workforce in these sectors. But economic success does not automatically generate health and social development. Mumbai, for example, is a very successful, vibrant and innovative city but half its population lives in informal settlements lacking decent infrastructure.

Cities also have economies of scale and agglomeration for health and social progress. Concentrations of people lower unit costs for good quality provision of water, sanitation, drainage, health-care services, schools and the rule of law. The costs of ‘big infrastructure’ – for instance, water treatment plants – is usually less per person in cities. Enforcing environmental regulations and collecting revenues is also cheaper. But to realise these potential advantages needs a competent municipal administration that is accountable to its low-income population – a city government that sees those who live and work in informal settlements as key parts of the economy and electorate.

I was told by a senior civil servant in Mumbai that the people living in ‘slums’ were mostly rural migrants who were a drain on the economy and who should “go back to their villages”. Actually, this is not the case: they are central to Mumbai’s economic success and a high proportion of them were born in Mumbai. So I suggested to him that he ask those he employed or whose services he used – including his maid, cook, driver, gardener, laundry service, street cleaner and security guard – where they lived. He found that they all had homes in informal settlements.

Dharavi, the informal settlement that became part of central Mumbai as the city expanded, has around 600,000 inhabitants squashed into 2 km2. It is seen as a ‘slum’ by most, but the value of businesses concentrated there represents hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It also has a huge waste-recycling economy that is beneficial to the city and the global environment.

Competent, accountable urban governments can act on the advantages of concentration and avoid the disadvantages – including the concentration of pollution. They can raise revenues from their businesses and citizens. That is if, in return, they provide good quality infrastructure and services and trustworthy government. This allows life expectancies to be so high in many cities – including those outside the wealthiest nations, such as Porto Alegre in Brazil. Cities can also provide a much closer connection between politicians and their constituents.

Urban populations have long been central to driving political change locally and nationally. Many innovations that have improved health were driven by low-income groups in trade unions, political parties and social movements. One reason why many South American cities are rated highly as centres of urban innovation is because of the introduction of elected mayors and increases in the power and resources of city governments over the last two decades. This helps explain the innovations in Bogota, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Manizales, Rosario and Medellin, much of which has been due to city governments responding to citizen demands and improving the provision of services to informal settlements. Among the most influential political innovations in this region is participatory budgeting that allows the residents of each district in a city to influence public investment priorities.

There is another potent force promoting development in cities – the self-help federations formed by slum and shack dwellers or homeless people. These have long been active in nations such as India, Thailand and South Africa, but now comparable federations operate in more than 30 nations. Along with the local NGOs that support them, these groups have formed their own international organisation, Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI). This helps them work with, and learn from, each other. It also gives them a presence in global discussions on funding and helps them influence international funding agencies.

At the heart of these federations are savings groups formed by slum or shack dwellers. Most savers and most savings managers are women. Each federation has initiatives under way by which member savings groups build homes (where they can access land), upgrade houses and build or improve services (for instance, community toilets). They do not seek to influence government by protest; instead, they offer partnerships. When a politician or civil servant is confronted by 100 low-income women demanding toilets or housing, they usually ignore them. But when they are invited by these 100 women to see the homes they have built or the community toilets they designed, constructed and now manage, this attitude often changes.

Some federations have prepared city-wide surveys of informal settlements and careful enumerations and censuses of these areas. Such documentation is needed to improve conditions and install infrastructure. In Cuttack in India, the local Mahila Milan (‘women together’) savings groups have provided the city government with detailed profiles of the ‘slum’ areas and also a digital map, as the boundaries of each settlement were marked by global positioning devices.

Over 150,000 families within these federations have secured land tenure or negotiated land on which they have built housing. In Thailand, the savings groups formed by slum and shack dwellers have been supported by a national agency (the Community Organisations Development Institute – CODI) in implementing one of the most ambitious upgrading initiatives. CODI channels government subsidies for infrastructure and loans for housing direct to the savings groups which then plan and carry out improvements to their housing and work with local governments or utilities to improve infrastructure and services. From 2003 to 2010, within the Baan Mankong (secure housing) programme, CODI approved initiatives in 1,319 communities covering 80,201 households, and it plans a considerable expansion of the programme within the next few years.

When national or local governments take seriously the capacities of these savings groups and their federations or networks, the scale of what can be achieved increases tremendously. Very little aid goes to these federations. Aid agencies and development banks may find it hard to work directly with urban poor organisations – even if these agencies’ very existence is justified on the basis of them meeting poor people’s needs.

Two international funds show a way forward. The first is the Urban Poor Fund International, which allows the federations to choose what is prioritised and funded. Over the past ten years, it has helped pay for the following: land for housing in Cambodia, Kenya, India, Malawi, Colombia, Nepal, the Philippines, South Africa and Zimbabwe; slum/squatter upgrading and land tenure in Cambodia, India and Brazil; bridging finance for initiatives in the Philippines, South Africa and India (where promised government support is slow to materialise); cleaner water and better sanitation in Uganda, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe (with improved land tenure); and slum/shack enumerations in Brazil, Namibia, Ghana, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Zambia.

The other funding comes from the Asian Coalition for Community Action, managed by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights. This provides small grants to grassroots organisations that help catalyse and support partnerships with local governments. In its first year of operation, it provided support in 64 cities. It uses the principle of ‘insufficiency’, as there is not enough development assistance to fund ‘sufficiently’ all that needs to be done in informal settlements. But for community organisations to have ‘insufficient’ funds available quickly, to be used for what they prioritise, encourages them to think of how to catalyse other forms of support.

Although most international funding agencies have not yet worked out how to fund these citizens’ self-help federations, there is a growing recognition of their importance for the future of cities.

They deserve more support. The recent McKinsey report mapping the economic power of cities said almost nothing about social, environmental or governance issues, as if these had no bearing on a city’s economic success. The new enthusiasm for discussing the green economy rarely even considers cities. It’s as if we can evolve a greener economy and greener consumption patterns without understanding how cities can contribute to or work against such aims.

As if the challenges of building city government capacity and accountability did not pose enough problems, now cities need to include climate change in their plans. In regard to the vulnerability of urban areas to more intense or frequent floods and storms and other risks from climate change, well-governed cities that address the social and health issues outlined above also have far more capacity to adapt to climate change.

As for driving climate change, it is not cities that produce greenhouse gas emissions but particular industries, service enterprises, institutions and households. A proportion of these are in cities, with the rest in rural areas and urban centres too small to be considered cities. Some cities concentrate very high emitters – for instance, heavy industries or those with high consumption lifestyles. Others have little of this. Greenhouse gas emissions per person can be 200 times higher in some cities than in others. It is particular cities, not cities in general, that contribute disproportionately to greenhouse gas emissions, with Denver (which produces 21.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per person per year), Washington DC (19.7 tonnes) and Minneapolis (18.3 tonnes) being among the worst offenders.

Ultimately, almost all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by consumption. London and New York appear to have relatively low emissions per person for such wealthy cities. In part, this is because they have good public transport systems. But it is also because they now have so little industry. The greenhouse gas emissions used to make and transport the consumer goods their citizens buy are allocated to the places these goods were made, not where they are consumed.

If responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions is tied to those whose consumption drives the emissions, then New York and London have much higher levels. But wealthy groups in rural areas or small towns usually have higher emissions than comparably wealthy groups living in cities. This is especially true for cities where there is desirable highdensity housing and good provision for walking, cycling and taking public transport. In London, Chelsea is hardly considered an undesirable place to live; it has among the world’s most expensive housing and good provision for parks, squares and cultural facilities. Much of its housing stock comprises three- to six-storey terraces that can be very energy efficient. So much of London is easily accessible from Chelsea that residents have far less need to own or use cars. High quality, dense residential areas and good public transport and provision for cycling help explain why many desirable cities in Europe such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen have much lower greenhouse gas emissions per person than most cities in North America.

Cities also concentrate so much of what contributes to a high quality of life that need not imply high consumption (and thus high greenhouse gas emissions). Part of the joy of living in London, New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai and Cape Town, for example, is the theatre, the music, the museums, the libraries, the visual arts, dance, festivals, historic buildings and the wide choice of places to eat, or simply the pleasure of being in a diverse and vibrant place. Cities may be seen as ‘bad’ in terms of climate change but actually they hold out enormous potential to delink a high quality of life from high consumption.

Concrete jungles

More than 50 percent of the world’s population currently live in urban areas; by 2050 it is estimated that this number will swell to 70 percent.

According to UN-Habitat’s ‘State of the World’s Cities’, “the urban phenomenon of this century will be megacities”; characterised by their size, these sprawling metropolises are host to populations exceeding 10 million. The UN identifies 21 such cities, including Manila, Istanbul, Moscow, Cairo, Lagos, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro.

Whilst most of the world’s urban growth occurs in smaller cities and towns, many of the larger cities of the developing world continue to advance apace; fundamental to globalisation they drive wealth by taking advantage of advanced technology to compete for business.

Some cities are experiencing such rapid expansion that planning and development of infrastructure struggle to keep pace, and there is concern that without investment to match growth, regions will become “overwhelmed by burgeoning slums”.

The four largest of the 21 megacities are ‘meta-cities;’ the UN’s term for enormous agglomerations of more than 20 million people. Tokyo’s population hit the 20 million mark in the 1960s making it the first of the meta-cities, it now boasts a population of almost 37 million. UN-Habitat predicts that by 2025 Shanghai, Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka, Mexico City, São Paulo and New York-Newark will also have grown to be meta-cities.

About the author:

David Satterthwaite is Senior Fellow of the Human Settlements Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development, London.


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