2012 in review: How democracy is forcing itself onto the global urban agenda

The Global Urbanist

Kerwin Datu and Naik Lashermes of Global Urbanist trace the trends and the challenges that our cities have faced in 2012 in their recent article that can be read at : http://globalurbanist.com/2012/12/24/2012-in-review

The article questions the larger theme that has emerged tracing the urban development scenario:  how to manage and improve our cities without cutting across the grain of them. How do we repair the disruption and displacement caused by development, how do we strengthen the rights and recognise the contributions of all communities, how do we reorganise what we have rather than destroy it through reinvention, and how do we do all of this while being who we want to be, individually and collectively?

Some of the highlights of the article are:


This was a year in which news of evictions of the poor arrived with depressing regularity. As Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, suggested in Naples this September, this is a global phenomenon intensified by rapid economic growth and the free flow of capital looking for investment opportunities in the world’s urban areas. Some of the examples of the same have been threat in Rio de Janeiro (such as in Vila Autódromo on the proposed Olympic Park site or the old port areas sighted for redevelopment) and Lagos (notably the sublimely innovative Makoko community) and traders being pushed aside in the Gandhi Bazaar in Bangalorethe tourist trail in Hampithe western Chinese outpost of Xining. Even wealthy American cities like San Francisco andChicago are not above the insensitive demolition of poor communities.

The idea that development is essentially a win-win process is a fallacy. There is always some community that suffers in every urban development project, and it is wrong to pretend that such suffering is inevitable or that there must always be sacrifices to be made for the greater good. Every development project, if it has any net benefit at all, can afford to recompense the costs that it imposes on others. The human, social and economic costs of every project can be identified and to a large extent measured and evaluated.


Yet these evictions and displacements are merely the acute expression of a larger phenomenon we are inclined to call discriminatory cities — cities whose laws, policies, planning processes and economic priorities are effectively structured to discriminate against poor and informal communities, to ignore their needs or restrict their ability to claim their rights as citizens, often for the purported benefit of formal businesses and residents or worse, in desperate attempts to gain the approval of foreign observers and investors. For example, Beijing is “sealing in” immigrant residents of its urban villages, Shanghai is harassing traders and motorcycle taxi drivers, Gurgaon is refusing to acknowledge or provide services to workers who drive its factories, while Johannesburg seems to be creating separate rail systems for its wealthy and poor areas and Nairobi is circumventing its congested centre rather than relieving it. We seem to be a long way from the principle that all citizens deserve the equal attention and concern of the political system that governs them.


When we displace or demolish any community we are destroying not just homes, but also places of employment, places of education, and places of social interaction and therefore of economic support, as the above examples of marginalised traders show. Arguably we need to assert not only a right to adequate housing, but a right to adequate space so that every citizen can satisfy all the functions they carry out within the urban economy and community. This carries into the political and international dimensions: too many governments and other organisations focus on urban development as a problem of housing, neglecting to address and even to monitor our collective progress in improving the livelihoods and income levelsof all communities in our cities.


So far this is very much a social agenda, but there remain fundamental planning and environmental questions to be addressed in the face of ongoing urbanisation and urban growth. While all the world is in agreement that we need to move from fossil-fuel-dependent models towards greater symbiosis with the environment, and ideas abound for rendering the city more green, more intelligent, more resilient, more liveable, we are unimpressed that nearly thirty years after the Brundtland Commission we are still searching for ways to reduce the harm we cause to the environment and our own sustainability rather than seeking to design urban systems that replicate ecological processes and produce net benefits to the environment and our resource base.


Question of urban identities, especially those which arise through situations of political conflict has been of importance in these last few years. In postwar contexts such asthe redevelopment of Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, thereemergence of Mogadishu from the shadow of civil war or the reconstruction of Stari Most, the “old bridge” of Mostar, understanding the identities that exist within a city (those attached to communities as well as those attached to places within the city), respecting them, giving them expression, and resolving them where they continue to sow division, is fundamental to the healing process.


If the question of identity has emerged so strongly in urban planning this year, it is because it reflects the need for a major overhaul of how the wider public participates in the formation of the city. What emerges from this surprisingly insistent question of identity is a democratic agenda: how to listen to the people, since the people obviously refuse to go unheard.




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