History of IIED’s urban work
IIED began work on urban themes in 1974 when its president, Barbara Ward, was invited by the Canadian government to write a global overview of urban issues. This book, entitled The Home of Man, was one of three that Ward wrote in the 1970s that reached a large audience with IIED’s concern for both environment and development. In 1976, IIED helped the Canadian government to organize Habitat, the first UN Conference on Human Settlements. To support the interest in urban issues generated by this conference. IIED invited the Argentine urbanist, Jorge E. Hardoy, to establish a Human Settlements Programme in 1977.
The work began with teams in the Sudan, Nigeria, India and Argentina and included assessments of the effectiveness of governments and international agencies in housing and urban development and research on the health and environmental problems faced by low-income groups. Work was also undertaken on the role of small and intermediate sized urban centres in rural and regional development. In 1979, Jorge Hardoy founded a new IIED office in Buenos Aires, first as a branch of IIED and later as an independent institution, IIED-América Latina. IIED’s work on Human Settlements became directed jointly out of London and Buenos Aires.
In recent years, the work on Human Settlements has focused on environmental problems in cities, the integration of sustainable development concerns into urban policy (with a special interest in climate change adaptation), rural-urban linkages, housing finance systems that serve the priorities of low-income households and grassroots organizations and interventions for supporting poverty reduction in urban areas. There is also a particular interest in the needs and priorities of children and youth in all the above, directed by Sheridan Bartlett, a visiting fellow. All this work has been undertaken in partnership with institutions in 20 different countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America which include some of the most innovative urban NGOs and research groups in these regions (see partners)
There are also joint research projects with other IIED Groups, including Climate Change for work on the possibilities for and constraints on adaptation in urban areas and the Natural Resources Group for work on the importance of local institutions in environment and sustainable development and on rural-urban linkages.
The main urban issues
Most of the world’s urban population and most of its largest cities are now in Africa, Asia and Latin America. So too is most of the urban poverty, as IIED has helped to demonstrate. Increasingly, governments and international agencies recognize that a large and growing proportion of the world’s poorest groups live in urban areas.
Urban areas also concentrate a high proportion of resource consumption, waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions, and future levels for all these will be strongly influenced by the scale and form of urban development. Given the scale of urban poverty and of the environmental implications of urban development, any institute committed to environment and development has to work in urban areas. IIED has long emphasized that urban policy is an essential part of sustainable development policy.
Whilst most urban literature dwells on urban problems, urbanization brings important opportunities. Well-managed cities contribute much to strong and adaptable regional and national economies. Cities reduce the cost of meeting the basic needs of many of the world's low-income citizens as high densities and large population concentrations usually lower costs per household for the provision of infrastructure and services. The concentration of industries should reduce the unit cost of making regular checks on plant and equipment safety as well as on occupational health and safety, pollution control and the handling of hazardous wastes.
Cities can also set new standards in resource conservation and waste minimization. The concentration of production and consumption provides more scope for minimizing wastes or re-using or recycling them. In addition, well-managed cities can provide high living standards with low greenhouse gas emission levels – in part by greatly reducing the dependence of higher-income groups on private automobile use. Making sure that these opportunities are secured in an increasingly urbanized world is one of the key challenges of the twenty-first century. A further challenge will be to ensure that the urban poor’s rights are recognized and that they can form more effective relationships with local government and other decision makers.
IIED has long emphasized the need for environment and development policy for cities to be integrated into wider regional concerns. Resource flows and waste streams into and out of any city show a scale and complexity of linkages with rural producers and ecosystems which demonstrates that ‘sustainable urban development’ and ‘sustainable rural development’ cannot be separated. The linkages can be positive in both developmental and environmental terms. Demand for rural produce from urban enterprises and households can support prosperous farms and rural settlements, where environmental capital is not being depleted. There are many examples of rural producers investing in maintaining the quality of soils and water resources, and of urban organic solid and liquid wastes being used to enhance soil fertility. But these are the exceptions. IIED’s work on rural-urban linkage with research teams in Mali, Nigeria, Vietnam and Tanzania seeks to provide a better basis for integrating rural and urban issues within urban policy.
Getting urban issues onto government and donor agendas
Both urban poverty reduction and urban environmental issues continue to receive a low priority from most aid agencies and many national governments. This reflects a long-established belief that development problems might be more easily addressed if people remained in rural areas where they can grow their own food. It misses the key economic role of well-functioning urban systems and reflects an inaccurate assumption that urban populations are privileged with government expenditure on basic services. IIED’s work has emphasized that urban areas (especially major cities) may receive above-average levels of public expenditure on infrastructure and services but that a large proportion of the urban population does not benefit from this. Hospitals, piped water systems and sewers may be concentrated in cities but a high proportion of city dwellers have no access to them. Meanwhile, urban populations living outside the larger cities are often as ill-served with basic services as rural populations.
Most international agencies have limited experience in urban areas and some are still reluctant to work there. In addition, urban governments remain weak in most countries and unaccountable to their citizens in many. The scope for success is greatly increased in countries with effective decentralization programmes and where local democracy is strong. Another key part of the current context for urban development is increased private sector involvement in the provision of basic services and infrastructure (such as roads, public transport, water, sanitation and waste management). This has changed the nature of urban governance, including the roles and responsibilities of government bodies. It also has implications for the nature, cost and availability of essential facilities.
There is also the fact, long-emphasized by IIED’s work (see in particular the book Squatter Citizen published in 1989), that governments and international agencies do not give appropriate support to the many ways in which cities are built ‘from the bottom up.’ The informal economy remains critical for employment and livelihoods for much of the urban population including many of the lowest-income urban residents. Most of the new urban housing in Africa, Asia and Latin America is built in informal settlements. Low-income groups and their community organizations have a major role in the construction and management of most urban centres in Africa and most of Asia and Latin America — and will continue to do so. Yet, they rarely receive official acknowledgment for this role, let alone appropriate support.
This is beginning to change. National federations formed by ‘slum’ and ‘shack’ dwellers are now actively engaged in addressing their own needs, including upgrading and service provision and in building new homes. There are federations in 16 nations and savings groups with the potential to form such federations in many more nations. These federations and the local NGOs that work with them have formed many effective partnerships with local governments, increasing the scale and scope of what can be achieved. The Federations have also formed an international umbrella organization, Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI). A considerable part of IIED’s work has been to document and support their work.
IIED’s role in promoting change
For more than three decades, IIED has argued that ‘urban does matter’. Through its research, policy advice and documentation, it has sought to ensure that development professionals and practitioners throughout the world understand urban problems and opportunities, and have an appreciation of effective solutions. Its long-standing experience and network of partners give it a unique understanding of both the problems that need to be tackled and the solutions that are effective. Its position between academic researchers and practitioners, between Northern development assistance agencies and Southern practitioners, and between government institutions and civil society provides insights into the potential and capacity of each group and the roles that they might have. Inter-disciplinary approaches enable a broad range of analytical tools to be brought to bear on urban problems, while a strong commitment to the concept of sustainable development ensures that social, economic and environmental issues all receive full attention.