Is more inclusive urbanisation essential to the 2030 Agenda?

Efforts to better accommodate rural migrants moving to cities could play an important part in resolving conflicts in the 2030 Agenda and ensuring no-one is left behind.

Gordon McGranahan's picture
Insight by 
Gordon McGranahan
Gordon McGranahan is a principal researcher in IIED's Human Settlements Group
02 March 2016
The Bairro Proletário do Dique in Rio de Janeiro was settled in the 1960s. The local infrastructure remains poor (Photo: Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The Bairro Proletário do Dique in Rio de Janeiro was settled in the 1960s. The local infrastructure remains poor (Photo: Mariana Gil/EMBARQ Brasil, Creative Commons via Flickr)

The 2030 Agenda promises Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are "integrated and indivisible" and "leave no-one behind". Yet goals listed have historically been pursued in ways that bring them into conflict with each other.

In a newly released paper in Environment & Urbanization, Daniel Schensul, Gayatri Singh and I argue that inclusive urbanisation is central to bringing these goals into alignment and preventing people from being 'left behind'.

In most countries in Asia and Africa, populations are both growing and urbanising. Indeed, almost all of the world's population growth is concentrated in these countries' towns and cities. As in urbanising countries in the past, their governments are attracted by the economic advantages of cities, but worried by urbanisation and fearful of too many poor people crowding into the cities and towns.

Too often, the response is an urbanisation that excludes those most in need from key urban benefits. Cities and towns compete to attract as much investment as possible, but try to avoid attracting rural people who have poor economic prospects, even if they are even worse-off in rural areas.

In effect, economic goals are pursued in a manner that undermines unnecessarily the realisation of social goals. 

The term 'urban bias' has long been used by those claiming that excessive benefits go to urban populations. But the most obvious urban bias results from attempts to exclude poor groups from urban spaces, markets, services and politics. These include rural-urban migrants as well as longstanding urban poor groups.

Such groups receive some support from local authorities and civil society groups, but this support is often outweighed by exclusionary policies and practices.

Engines of growth or growth machines?

Cities offer economic advantages, but it is important also to recognise political as well as economic realities. Bad politics often sour efforts to turn cities and towns into economic powerhouses.

When economists describe cities as 'engines of growth', they are using the term positively to emphasise their economic potential. When urban sociologists use the almost identical term 'growth machines', they use the term negatively to emphasise the socially destructive politics of powerful groups forming urban coalitions under the banner of delivering economic growth. 

Sociologists and economists don't talk to each other, but it is important to bring these two perspectives together in order to tap the economic potential of urbanisation without actively steering the benefits to a small minority.  

When they do deliver economic growth, urban growth coalitions are inclined to steer the benefits in their own direction, even when this is bad economics.

The wealthy may concentrate in cities where they are treated particularly well, but urban economics does not claim that treating the wealthy particularly well, and discriminating against those with worse economic prospects, creates additional wealth. A more inclusive urbanisation would be socially beneficial and done right, could be economically beneficial too.

The experiences of some of the emerging economies, such as Brazil and South Africa, illustrate just how toxic and persistent the social legacy of urban exclusion can be, and how it can become an obstacle to a flourishing economy as well as to a fair society.

The favelas that grew out of Brazil's urban exclusion in the 20th century and the townships from South Africa's apartheid era are still central to their social challenges today.

Exclusionary urbanisation can become a vicious cycle

When cities or their elites fear excessive migration-driven growth, they tend to be less rather than more inclined to plan for it. They don't want public finance to be invested in the infrastructure needed to accommodate this 'excess' population. Better to avoid opening up affordable land, and discourage poor people from staying.

But this often pushes poor groups to live in expanding informal settlements, in much worse conditions than if more land had formally been opened up for affordable housing. 

Migration usually accounts for a minority of the urban population growth, and it is not even clear that the exclusionary policies really do reduce migration. The cycle goes on, and becomes very hard to reverse.

So what is inclusive urbanisation?

Sustainable Development Goal 11 is to "make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable". Clearly in this context inclusive urbanisation must mean not excluding people from urban politics, spaces, markets and services on the basis of their identity.

More than this, it should mean including them on fair terms, and giving them a say in the processes that determine those terms. And ultimately it means supporting the progressive fulfilment of human rights. 

How can this be achieved?

There is no silver bullet, but inclusion will be much easier if urban authorities make efforts to accommodate the population they anticipate rather than the population they desire. 

In urbanising countries this means opening up affordable spaces for people to settle on the edges of cities and towns, but also creating more affordable housing by increasing the density of housing near the centres.

Such measures can help achieve other dimensions of inclusive urbanisation, without setting them at odds with the goal of securing a flourishing economy.

Gordon McGranahan ([email protected]) is a principal researcher in IIED's Human Settlements Group and a fellow with the Institute of Development Studies. This blog draws on an article in the journal Enivronment & Urbanization, entitled Inclusive urbanisation: can the 2030 Agenda be delivered without it? 

The full text of this article is available free of charge online. We have also published reflections from a workshop on inclusive urbanisation which included discussion of an earlier version of the article.