Can Global Cities Be Made Fair, Inclusive and Just?

Experts discuss identity-linked exclusion in global cities, the actions needed to address the issue, the main actors that need to be involved and more.

The inaugural edition of the xSDG UnConference, hosted by Belongg in collaboration with Dalberg, J-PAL South Asia and Breakthrough India was held from August 18-31, 2021. Bringing together the global community of academics, development professionals, practitioners and people interested in themes of diversity and inclusion, each session at the UnConference offered diverse and nuanced insights on topics ranging from inclusive WASH, education, urban planning and employment to various other aspects of an intersectional approach to sustainable development. 

Cities are engines of growth and progress. They contribute to substantial economic growth, provide employment to billions and enable innovation through the cross-pollination of ideas and expertise. More people are now living in cities than ever before and recognising this, a substantial effort within international development goes towards creating green, resilient, equitable and liveable cities.

However, development activity in urban development and cities still has significant blind spots linked to identity: disabled populations find it difficult to access transport, the density of recreational and green spaces is significantly less in Black neighbourhoods or those of religious minorities and there is still significant housing discrimination linked to faith, gender and sexual minorities.

What do we know about the nature and extent of identity-linked exclusion in cities across the world? Which communities are most at risk? What are the different kinds of actions that are needed to address this? What role do different players in global development need to play more actively to address this issue? What is the role that data and measurement play and how can we improve our understanding of this issue? What are some innovations or successful examples we can learn from? Why should our cities be inclusive?

Ghazala Jamil, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University and author of Accumulation by Segregation: Muslim Localities in Delhi along with Amira Osman, research chair of spatial transformation at the University of Tshwane in South Africa and Kira Intrator, lead of habitat planning and innovation at the Agha Khan Development Network (AKDN) constituted the three-member panel which sought to discuss these questions.

The session was moderated by Shruti Goyal, an associate partner at Dalberg and Mokena Makeka, principal in Dalberg Advisors.

The following is a complete transcript of the session.

Mokena Makeka: Looking at the broader spectrum of how the world has been pivoting over the last couple of years, the conversations around identity and urban spaces have become pertinent, such as in the Black Lives Matter (#BLM) movement. There has been a parallel strident cry for inclusive politics, economic practices and even spatial strategies. We are at an inflection point where critical decisions are being made, value propositions are being recalibrated around questions of climate change, ecology, inclusivity as well as the custodianship of the planet. 

In this panel, we will be dealing with questions of how can the city, in its global format, participate in an urban development agenda that’s fair, inclusive and just – whether ecologically, socially, or economically. What’s the role of design here?

Also read: The Importance of Balanced Urban Development Has Been Ignored for Far Too Long

Amira Osman: The issues of inclusion and exclusion are key to my day-to-day work. I am originally from Sudan. In 1992, I did a short course in the Netherlands on housing. It was then I learned that buildings have an impact beyond the site boundaries and they must respond to the socio-economic context. For many years, I used to operate condescendingly, thinking, “when we go out to communities, we are transferring skills and knowledge.” It took me a decade to unlearn and change the word ‘transfer’ to ‘exchange’. With changing terminologies, my tone and approach to my work changed as I realised my work was a process of mutual learning. 

Ghazala Jamil: My experiences of social realities of minorities in India were barely spoken of or discussed beyond tokenism in academia or civil society in India. As a resident of a Muslim locality and as an educator, it was striking for me that the literature in urban sociology or urban planning in India didn’t mention Muslims, even though Muslims are the most urbanised community in India. This pushed me into looking at the question of housing segregation in Delhi. Thus, questions of identity and spatiality have intrigued me. 

Kira Intrator: I’ve led urban and rural planning for the Agha Khan Agency in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Syria. My focus has been on ways to scale impact, whether that’s from product design, UX designs or inclusive planning. I believe in the power of data and technology, but also in the importance of the voices of the communities we work with. The ethos of AKDN ensures that governance systems are set up to have that inclusive voice, especially gender inclusivity. It’s pertinent to note the identity formation of where we live, the fact that opportunity – or the lack thereof – is spatial and is particularly dangerous as it continues through generations.

Makeka: What got me into this space was trying to understand how it is that you have extreme living conditions on Earth at the same time? How can one country be so abundant, while the other so deprived? I couldn’t reconcile it as merely being a product of the people or the politics; there had to be something deeper, embedded and structural. It was not in the interest of the apartheid regime to have successful black countries as that would have inspired local black populations to be rebellious. 

We are in a geopolitical context where the impact of colonialism is visibly evident. Of course, the questions of inclusion at the micro scale are important but we must also reflect on the bigger geopolitical questions around inclusion, where it’s not a city but entire countries excluded from conversations. In planning regional and global economic strategies, a whole people don’t even have a seat at the table.

In South Africa, we have had 200 years of orchestrated spatial inequality; the sheer mad genius of knowing that through space, you can determine economies for generations to come. What got me going is just seeing two different worlds at an hour-long distance and thinking how humans could live in diametrically different conditions; and a profound belief that it was unnatural!

We’ve all encountered various forms of exclusion in one way or another. Amira, could you tell us more about your understanding of spatial exclusion in Sudan and South Africa? What communities are at risk?

Osman: In South Africa, race becomes central to identity-led exclusion. However, in Sudan, it’s gender-based. Women in Sudan have been fighting for the right to be in public spaces and to avail the opportunities that it offers.

A Sudanese woman chants slogans and waves national flag in celebration following Sudan’s ruling military council and a coalition of opposition and protest groups reached an agreement to share power during a transition period leading to elections, along the streets of Khartoum, Sudan July 5, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

For instance, Khartoum is at the meeting point of the Blue and White Niles. Along the river banks, many small-scale recreational activities are happening. Tea Ladies of Sudan are a key part of that, providing an environment for women to go out in the public space and relax. They have been fighting for the ‘right to be’. Later, we had students protesting as they’d heard key locations on the river banks were being sold to investors.

When we investigated deeper, we came across the Khartoum Structure Plan. It had been designed in a way that women, small-scale traders were being excluded. It disadvantaged so many and people did go out on the streets, risking their lives. They couldn’t critique the Khartoum Plan but knew that their livelihoods were at risk.

Jamil: Looking at identity-based segregation, especially residential segregation, in India, we find that social fractures are profound. While there’s discrimination on religious grounds, there’s also the caste system. Caste is by-and-large woven in the Hindu religion, however, given India’s complex history, it has found its way in other religious identities as well. Thus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians also practice a variant of the caste system. In terms of spatial segregation, there’s segregation based on class, caste and religious identities.

The fact of segregation based on religious lines has colonial origins and is particularly problematic due to the history of the partition of British India into India and Pakistan and then Bangladesh. Pakistan was supposed to be the homeland for Muslims while India was to be a secular nation.

A large number of Muslims continued to live in India, but they are burdened by this history. Muslim neighbourhoods in India have the burden and the pejorative labelling of being ‘mini Pakistans’ in India; their nationalism and patriotism is always under question. Segregation is a lived reality of many communities, however, it’s way more complicated for Muslims and fraught with dangers and issues related to life, liberty and economic rights.

Makeka: Would you say that certain jobs or services are reserved, formally or by proxy, due to identity markers such as caste or religion? Is the city marked by certain behaviours linked to certain identities? How are people navigating it and what options do they have?

Jamil: One is born into a caste and is supposed to die into it; there’s no way you can get rid of it. That’s how the caste system works! In another way, it’s supposed to be based on occupational differences; the most undesirable, less paying jobs, fraught with hardship, get reserved for people belonging to certain communities. Although there is affirmative action for the SC/ST communities, it is for public sector employment and public universities, not school education.

In my research, I found out that identity-based spatial segregation in cities is another form of labour market segregation. It’s their identities as well as their spatial location that makes it difficult for them to have any kind of socio-economic or occupational mobility.

Shruti Goyal: Coming back to the colonial nature of South Africa, a lot of countries have had similar experiences. What has changed in South Africa – or not – with regards to identity-linked exclusion?

Makeka: At a systemic level, South Africa has made an incredible stride for inclusivity, be it in terms of same-sex marriage, outlawing marital rape or religious freedom. Our cities do offer a high fluidity, but at the same time the spatial conditions perpetuate racial inequalities. It then pans out as structural economic barriers. We sit in a country of contradictions! 

Our country’s constitution is one of the most progressive in the world. There are attempts to translate it into reality, but it gets difficult when it comes to hard, expensive infrastructure decisions on how to design townships, the distribution of schools, access to greenery and so on. I believe in positive affirmation and black economic empowerment; it’s the reason I’m here. Our democracy continues to be challenged but we are not in denial. 

Osman: South African cities are structured to disadvantage and humiliate. There have been attempts to fix this on paper, however, to translate it into doable actions, we need political will and for our strategies to be pro-poor. South Africa did a great job in access to housing, but soon it was realised that it was not transforming the city. Thus, here we need to reassess the metrics of success. Instead of focusing on the numbers, let’s shift our focus to how it has changed people’s lives.

There’s always this uncomfortable relationship between government and people’s activities within the cities. Often, local governments withhold services and support for what I consider to be legitimate activities in the city. In many ways, cities in South Africa or Sudan are ‘disabling cities’, not enabling ones. In Sudan, we still use the terms ‘first-class’, ‘second-class’, or ‘third-class’ neighbourhoods and there’s a restriction in terms of what building materials can be used, discouraging alternative or traditional building materials. It’s a terrible system and is discriminatory.

Other than liveability in a built environment, we must also look into the ‘lovability’ aspect. For me, a loveable built environment resonates with many over the years and is produced by many. If you factor in lovability, your approach to technical and design decision-making becomes very inclusive.

Intrator: The “loveable city” is a great phrase. A space produced by many is owned and maintained by many; there’s also a sense of community and connection. The work we do at AKDN focuses on how to scale the quality of urban planning. For us, the ethical underpinning is demand-driven participatory planning. It shouldn’t be a technocratic top-down approach; our processes must reflect the voice of the community. These processes are not linear, but we have milestones to hit. My focus is on scalable impact; some of that is achieved through methodology, data-driven processes and inculcating the vision and voice of the community.

Goyal: What are the roles and responsibilities that our policymakers and public bodies need to take on? Do you see any action on the positive front from the public policy or the governmental side on improving resource allocation or in making cities more fair and equitable?

Jamil: Earlier this year, we had a devastating second wave of Covid-19 and our health infrastructure completely collapsed. In rural areas, we didn’t have many facilities to begin with, but in urban spaces, it completely collapsed. It is not just inequitable but grossly insufficient for the needs of a population like ours. We have seen no political will, only complete callousness. 

The state of affairs in India is such that there’s no policy to address how cities are structured. I am yet to see any serious effort in which people’s dynamically changing lived experiences are accounted for in policymaking.  How policymakers envision cities might be starkly different from how commoners – especially marginalised identities – experience it. 

Makeka: In the Global South, it’s not even a matter of whether it’s the right policy, but the fact that there is no capacity. Do public officials have the capital to support their policy decisions? Is there the political will to make it happen? What’s the role of private sectors and NGOs? How do ordinary citizens feature into it?

Osman: My experiences have been messy as when you get into different communities, there are different dynamics and issues. In this context, how do we design? To translate the concept of lovability, we must engage with the community and hear what their concerns are. However, these concerns are dynamic – how do we as professionals design for that uncertainty? It’s important to acknowledge that and then keep consulting the people we design for.

Intrator: I resonate with the point on the messiness and chaos of planning. We have to take into account the cultural context, the scale of the project, what are the initiatives needed, questions of affordability and even environmental sustainability. There’s always this tension between quality assurance and getting systems in place. The question between scalability and specificity will always remain.

As mentioned previously, I do believe in the power of data processes and find it instrumental in determining the outcomes of the planning project. We have to ensure that the data we are looking at is inclusive. The private sector can play an important role here in terms of building capacity with and for the government. 

Makeka: I embrace the question of messiness and my work to a great degree has reflected that. I do think experts, by the virtue of their knowledge and in the spirit of engagement, must bring their expertise to the table along with providing avenues for public participation. We need to have that judgment about knowing what is a momentary decision versus what decision will hold relevant in perpetuity. Here, empathy becomes crucial. We need to have empathy for future users, otherwise our decisions will be more or less flawed.

Osman: Messiness can pave the way for inclusion. Every building, however small, has fixed, permanent elements and robust dynamic elements to it. We have to design in a manner that individuals get to transform and innovate without conflicting with the collective aspirations. 

Goyal: Has exclusion been accentuated during the pandemic? What new challenges are we facing in terms of implementation or data collection? How are the rights of migrants ensured by the cities?

Osman: The COVID-19 crisis made it worse due to the loss of jobs and the lack of access to opportunities. In South Africa, we saw migrant communities getting targeted. Unfortunately, we seem to be operating in a way that whenever there are limited resources, the levels of xenophobia surge. 

Jamil: Jumping into the question of messiness, it’s pertinent to note that planning practices and policymaking are not the only forces that are shaping urban spaces – political economy and politics play a crucial role. In India, electoral politics is the main game in town. 

Coming to the question of migrants, in the first lockdown, India witnessed a migrant crisis like never before. The infection transmission levels were quite low but we were pushed into a lockdown with no economic activity for months. The regime used lockdown as a pretext to crack down on the undesirables or whoever opposed the government. Here, the government policies and the politics created a mess. The bigger question is who is in power and what is their political will? 

Migrant labourers on Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway as they head home in the middle of nationwide lockdown. Photo: PTI.

In many cases, politics is such that it works to further deepen inequality instead of bridging the social cleavages. There’s this idea that cities are drivers of the economy, but how is this economy driven? It’s driven by inequity. All kinds of infrastructure development have ridden on the back of inequitable resource distribution. Such kind of development doesn’t make cities loveable or liveable but instead boosts nationalist chauvinism. We cannot work in isolation; we have to think of social and spatial justice at once!

Makeka: We need to keep thinking about the bigger questions about ‘empathetic cities’. We have to start thinking about nature as an inclusive citizen of our cities. In our designs, we have to keep various constituencies in mind to make cities more equitable. Our designs have to be such that they don’t eradicate the specific minority voices that need to be acknowledged, but also don’t shift our focus from the bigger picture.

Intrator: It’s critical to balance data-driven decision-making with current and forecasting data, with a special focus on ensuring that the voices of the community, especially the marginalised, are heard and built into our designs.

Osman: To conclude, I truly believe that successful cities can be inclusive and work for all. When we design for inclusivity, everyone benefits!

Goyal: My take-away from this conversation is the phrase ‘loveable cities’ and I’m sure we all will work together in designing these cities.

Muda Tariq is an associate at Belongg Research Collective.