“The Right to the City should mean the right to safety”: How can cities protect refugees?

The infamous “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais. Image: Getty.

Dar es Salaam, one of the fastest growing cities in sub-Sahara Africa, is on track to become a “mega-city” of over 10m residents by 2025. Much of this growth will occur in informal and unplanned areas of the city, exacerbating many of the current challenges of public service provision, economic accessibility and sustainable growth. So while millions of people will come to Dar es Salaam looking for a better life, there is no guarantee they will find it.

Among these millions are an estimated tens of thousands of displaced: those forced from their homes due to conflict in neighbouring countries, predominantly the DRC and, more recently, Burundi. They come to Dar es Salaam despite Tanzania’s policy that refugees must reside in camps, hiding their identities for fear of discrimination – or worse – while doing their best to safely build a life for themselves.

Refugees are a small percentage of the overall population but the risks they face are far more dangerous. As urbanisation continues, they increasingly find themselves in competition with economic migrants and long-term urban residents for access to public services and for economic opportunities, while facing unique legal and social barriers. This struggle of the urban displaced is best encapsulated using Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the Right to the City.

The New Urban Agenda

This outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III) refers to the Right to the City as its guiding visionary principle. It described that right as securing

equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and [ensuring] that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to foster prosperity and quality of life for all.”

The document also calls for the inclusion, safety, and economic wellbeing of “refugees, internally displaced persons, and migrants, particularly the poorest and those in vulnerable situations.”

Understanding how the Right to the City may include displaced populations, therefore, is critical to reaching the aims of the New Urban Agenda and to adapting aid to serve an urbanising world.

Violence in the City

While cities are rightly heralded for their wealth of opportunities, they are also a breeding ground for violence of every kind. A recent International Rescue Committee (IRC) review of the drivers of urban violence revealed a number of prevalent challenges specific to displaced populations in urban areas that contribute to the violence they experience: economic strain, inability to meet basic food and shelter needs, lack of legal protections and broad discrimination.

A current example is in Lebanon, where the majority of the 1.5m Syrian refugees live in urban areas, and half live in extreme poverty. A recent IRC survey found that economic strain on Syrian families – exacerbated by legal limitations on the right to work in their host country – is leaving some refugee parents with no choice but to send their children to work on the streets of Beirut and Tripoli, where they face a risk of physical, verbal and sexual violence. Of the 173 children surveyed – there are an estimated 1,500 children working on the streets of Lebanon – more than 60 percent said that they had experienced some form of violence.

A Way Forward

The bad news is that we’re all new at dealing with the scale and complexity of the problem. There is not enough hard evidence on how to address urban violence, build social cohesion, or ensure equal and inclusive access to services.

If I may put it simply, we don’t yet know how to encourage so many people who are perceived to be so different to get along within a single ward, neighbourhood, or sidewalk – let alone an entire city. And just to complicate things further, said city is growing faster than anyone can adequately measure or plan for.

The good news is that with documents, alliances, and toolkits – like the New Urban Agenda, the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, the Stronger Cities Initiative, or the IRC’s commitment to better aid by 2020 – there’s never been more evidence-backed resources or initiatives, from both humanitarian and development fields, dedicated to building the Right to the City than today.

To combat violence, we now know to focus on the disproportionate violence against women and youth; to prioritise legal status, documentation, and assistance of displaced persons; and to work on a community level to support economic inclusion and combat discrimination in cities. And we need to do all of this while respecting their desire to remain anonymous.

Next up is testing collaborative, innovative solutions that address the drivers of violence while building a more rigorous evidence base on what interventions work and are worth bringing to scale.

The Right to Safety

In a conversation I had with eleven displaced Congolese men living in Dar es Salaam, I learnt all had come to the city expecting opportunities to work and provide for their families; and all felt discriminated against by their neighbours, the police, their teachers, or their doctors to the point that they felt unsafe. None of them had the Right to the City, despite having lived there an average of 17 years.

The Right to the City means many things, but above all else it should mean the right to safety. While economic migrants and urban displaced are escaping different circumstances, both groups are moving to cities with the expectation of a better life, free of violence. We as humanitarians are adept at meeting the needs of the displaced. If we are to truly have a role in helping them achieve the Right to the City, we need to get better at meeting their expectations.

Samer Saliba is the urban technical specialist at the International Rescue Committee, and is currently gathering evidence around how to improve urban humanitarian response.

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Owning public space is expensive. So why do developers want to do it?

Granary Yard, London. Image: Getty.

A great deal has been written about privately owned public space, or POPS. A Guardian investigation earlier this year revealed the proliferation of “pseudo-public spaces”. Tales of people being watched, removed from or told off in POPS have spread online. Activists have taken to monitoring POPS, and politicians on both sides of the pond are calling for reforms in how they are run.

Local authorities’ motives for selling off public spaces are normally simple: getting companies to buy and maintain public space saves precious public pounds. Less straightforward and often overlooked in this debate is why – given the maintenance costs, public safety concerns and increasingly unflattering media attention – developers would actually want to own public space in the first place.

To answer that question it’s important to note that POPS can’t be viewed as isolated places, like parks or other public spaces might be. For the companies that own them, public spaces are bound up in the business that takes place inside their private buildings; POPS are tools that allow them, in one way or another, to boost profits.


In some cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, ownership of public space is a trade-off for the right to bend the rules in planning and zoning. In 1961 New York introduced a policy that came to be known as ‘incentive zoning’. Developers who took on the provision of some public space could build wider, taller buildings, ignoring restrictions that had previously required staggered vertical growth to let sunlight and air into streets.

Since then, the city has allowed developers to build 20m square feet of private space in exchange for 80 acres of POPS, or 525 individual spaces, according to watchdog Advocates for Privately Owned Public Space (APOPS).

Several of those spaces lie in Trump Tower. Before the King of the Deal began construction on his new headquarters in 1979, he secured a pretty good deal with the city: Trump Tower would provide two atriums, two gardens, some restrooms and some benches for public use; in exchange 20 floors could be added to the top of the skyscraper. That’s quite a lot of condos.

Shockingly, the current president has not always kept up his end of the bargain and has been fined multiple times for dissuading members of the public from using POPS by doing things like placing flower pots on top of benches – violating a 1975 rule which said that companies had to provide amenities that actually make public spaces useable. The incident might suggest the failure of the ‘honour system’ under which POPS operate day-to-day. Once developers have secured their extra square footage, they might be tempted to undermine, subtly, the ‘public’ nature of their public spaces.

But what about where there aren’t necessarily planning benefits to providing public space? Why would companies go to the trouble of managing spaces that the council would otherwise take care of?

Attracting the ‘right sort’

Granary Square, part of the £5bn redevelopment of London’s Kings Cross, has been open since 2012. It is one of Europe’s largest privately-owned public spaces and has become a focal point for concerns over corporate control of public space. Yet developers of the neighbouring Coal Drop Yards site, due to open in October 2018, are also making their “dynamic new public space” a key point in marketing.

Cushman Wakefield, the real estate company in charge of Coal Drops Yard, says that the vision of the developers, Argent, has been to “retain the historical architecture to create a dramatic environment that will attract visitors to the 100,000 square feet of boutiques”. The key word here is “attract”. By designing and managing POPS, developers can attract the consumers who are essential to the success of their sites and who might be put off by a grubby council-managed square – or by a sterile shopping mall door.

A 2011 London Assembly Report found that the expansion of Canary Wharf in the 1990s was a turning point for developers who now “assume that they themselves will take ownership of an open space, with absolute control, in order to protect the value of the development as a whole”. In many ways this is a win-win situation; who doesn’t appreciate a nice water feature or shrub or whatever else big developer money can buy?

The caveat is, as academic Tridib Banerjee pointed out back in 2001: “The public is welcome as long as they are patrons of shops and restaurants, office workers, or clients of businesses located on the premises. But access to and use of the space is only a privilege and not a right” – hence the stories of security guards removing protesters or homeless people who threaten the aspirational appeal of places like Granary Square.

In the US, developers have taken this kind of space-curation even further, using public spaces as part of their formula for attracting the right kind of worker, as well as consumer, for nearby businesses. In Cincinnati, developer 3CDC transformed the notoriously crime-ridden Over-The-Rhine (OTR) neighbourhood into a young professional paradise. Pouring $47m into an initial make-over in 2010, 3CDC beautified parks and public space as well as private buildings.

To do so, the firm received $50 million  in funding from corporations like Procter and Gamble, whose Cincinnati headquarters sits to the South-West of OTR. This kind of hyper-gentrification has profoundly change the demographics of the neighbourhood – to the anger of many long-term residents – attracting, essentially, the kind of people who work at Procter and Gamble.

Elsewhere, in cities like Alpharetta, Georgia, 3CDC have taken their public space management even further, running events and entertainment designed to attract productive young people to otherwise dull neighbourhoods.

Data pools

The proposed partnership between the city of Toronto and Sidewalk Labs (owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet) has highlighted another motive for companies to own public space: the most modern of all resources, data.

Data collection is at the heart of the ‘smart city’ utopia: the idea that by turning public spaces and the people into them into a vast data pool, tech companies can find ways to improve transport, the environment and urban quality of life. If approved next year, Sidewalk would take over the mostly derelict east waterfront area, developing public and private space filled with sensors.

 Of course, this isn’t altruism. The Globe and Mail describe Sidewalk’s desired role as “the private garbage collectors of data”. It’s an apt phrase that reflects the merging of public service and private opportunity in Toronto’s future public space.

The data that Sidewalk could collect in Toronto would be used by Google in its commercial projects. Indeed, they’ve already done so in New York’s LinkNYC and London’s LinkUK. Kiosks installed around the cities provide the public with wifi and charging points, whilst monitoring traffic and pedestrians and generating data to feed into Google Maps.

The subway station at Hudson Yards, New York City. Image: Getty.

This is all pretty anodyne stuff. Data on how we move around public spaces is probably a small price to pay for more efficient transport information, and of course Sidewalk don’t own the areas around their Link Kiosks. But elsewhere companies’ plans to collect data in their POPS have sparked controversy. In New York’s Hudson Yards development – which Sidewalk also has a stake in – ambiguity over how visitors and residents can opt out of sharing their data when in its public square, have raised concerns over privacy.

In Toronto, Sidewalk have already offered to share their data with the city. However, Martin Kenney, researcher at the University of California at Davis and co-author of 2016’s ‘The Rise of the Platform Economy’, has warned that the potential value of a tech company collecting a community’s data should not be underestimated. “What’s really important is the deals Toronto cuts with Sidewalk may set terms and conditions for the rest of the world," he said after the announcement in October.

The project could crystallise all three motives behind the ownership of POPS. Alongside data collection, Sidewalk will likely have some leeway over planning regulations and will certainly tailor its public spaces to its ideal workers and consumers – Google have already announced that it would move its Canadian headquarters, from their current location in Downton Toronto, into the first pilot phase of the development.

Even if the Sidewalks Lab project never happens, the motives behind companies’ ownership of POPS tell us that cities’ public realms are of increasing interest to private hands.

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