To improve the fabric of our cities, we need to give their residents more say

The UN estimates that more than half of the global population currently live in cities – and this figure is expected to balloon to 5bn urban inhabitants by 2030. In both developed and developing countries, the fast pace of urban growth often overwhelms existing housing and infrastructure. This in turn has led to an expansion of informal settlements, expensive rent, the growth of household debt and the consolidation of power and revenue with developers and landlords.

With these issues in mind, political leaders, academic experts, civil society organisations and community representatives from UN member states are meeting at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Equador, to develop strategies for managing an urban future, which they will define in the “New Urban Agenda”.

In general, the people and groups proposing solutions to these problems have access to certain forms of capital – not just economic, but also cultural or social, political, intellectual and natural capital. Each of these offers a way to exercise power and access resources, using means such as education, social connections, political popularity and natural resources. Access to any of these forms of capital can be a way of influencing the urban agenda and contribute solutions to the problems of the city.

Empowering politics

The redevelopment of existing communities and the construction of new urban areas is frequently funded by private companies looking to make a high return on investment. This is achieved by high-value sales or rental rates.

Without regulation, these processes create conditions that exclude or disempower poorer people within cities; for example, by limiting access to public spaces or making rent and home ownership unaffordable. One recent study revealed that, compared to other groups of people, poorer renters move more frequently into disadvantaged areas, each time experiencing a decline in their living standards.

Yet there are ways to avoid these outcomes: at the 2016 Urban Age conference, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau described her election as a way of leveraging political and social capital against financial capital. Strong social bonds between communities formed the background to her election, while grassroots campaigns against evictions and market forces in the city informed her mandate to govern.

Enhancing political capital is one way to challenge the urban agenda. To meet demand and solve overcrowding problems after World War I, the Vienna City Council pursued an aggressive development plan. Housing construction, levied by taxes rather than credit from the banks, would allow the council to limit rent to 4 per cent of an indvidual’s income, without the problem of paying off debt. To this day the city is lauded for its housing affordability and livability and a number of incentives for financing affordable rental properties.

Welcome home. Image: roger.newbrook/Flickr/creative commons.

As part of the original plan, the hundreds of buildings – called as “Wiener Gemeindebauten” – were constructed with kindergartens, clinics, libraries, laundries, parks and other public facilities. These facilities were not just convenient; they also improved the social capital of residents, giving them access to the amenities and services they needed to improve their lives and those of their children.

Power to the people

Social capital is another means of empowering people to influence the urban agenda. While banks and real estate analysts like measurable outcomes, many features of urban communities – such as a sense of beauty, belonging or safety – may be intangible and unquantifiable.

Take, for example, a low-income community at Parque do Gato in Sao Paolo, which benefited from beautification strategies such as mural making. These efforts increased the community’s visibility in the city, which made it less vulnerable to removal.

This accords with statements made by Nigerian architect Kunye Adayemi at the Urban Age conference. When the community of Makoko in Lagos was labelled an “eyesore” by the government and earmarked for demolition, his intervention – a floating school made from local materials – empowered the community with an identity that attracted media interest and enhanced its stability.

Makoko floating school. Image: Forgemind Archmedia/Flickr/creative commons.

There’s also clear evidence in favour of consulting the communities which are expected to use these housing or urban developments. Ideally, methods such as “social design” or “community engaged design” lead to plans which are specific to the community and its unique circumstances.

As a study on the Wall of Remembrance by the University of Barcelona found, better consultation and involvement of communities in new projects greatly improves results. By offering people greater ownership over, and participation in, these developments, it’s more likely that they will accept and use them properly.

Different types of capital don’t necessarily have the same power to affect change. But when poorer people and communities exercise their social capital, it increases their capacity to negotiate with powerful state and market forces and improve their lives. For example, the Local Well-being Project – a partnership between The Young Foundation, the LSE and local authorities – reported higher well-being in three different areas in England where residents had the confidence to exercise control over local affairs.

People with access to capital will be most emboldened to influence the urban agenda on behalf of others. This capital takes many forms – intellectual, financial, social and political. For low income earners and vulnerable groups who may lack access to other forms of capital, access to social capital can be improved through consultation and thoughtful urban design. As cities grow, it’s crucial to consider intangible benefits such as beauty, community and safety, instead of having a narrow focus on short-term profit.The Conversation

Philippa Nicole Barr is a PhD Candidate at Macquarie University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.