Beyond Bricks and Mortar: Building More Inclusive Cities to Lift the Urban Poor

January 30, 2014

Ira Peppercorn/World Bank

  • With the rapid growth of cities, it’s clear that improving existing slums isn't enough – cities also need to plan for growth and deliver affordable housing to prevent new slums from forming.
  • Urban specialists at the World Bank Group are examining ways to help cities develop more inclusively.
  • “Social inclusion is more than just democracy or economics. It’s about how a city treats its poor, how it works with marginalized groups, and how it involves the excluded.”

With 5 million people moving to cities every month, urban poverty is an increasingly complex problem for policy makers around the world.  At the World Bank Group, urban experts are looking at innovative ways to help cities reduce poverty and include the urban poor in the opportunities offered by growing cities.

“In the past, our work on inclusive cities has primarily focused on slum upgrading, the ‘bricks and mortar’ interventions, to deliver infrastructure and improve services,” said Sameh Wahba, acting director for the Bank’s Urban and Disaster Risk Management Department. “But with the rapid growth of cities, it’s clear that it’s not enough to just go fix existing slums – cities need to plan for a growing population and deliver affordable housing to prevent new slums from forming.” 

“We can’t continue to run after the problem to solve it,” he said.  “We need to get in front of it. In other words, couple the curative with the preventive.”

Exclusion Exacerbates Poverty

At a recent workshop, urban specialists looked at ways to better prepare for the historic influx of migrant families and the huge spatial transformation underway in cities around the globe.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, 200 million people were living in slums in 2010, nearly 62 percent of the region’s urban population, according to estimates by UN-Habitat.

Exclusion from society – the focus of the workshop and the case in nearly all slums – only serves to make poverty worse, said Luis Bettencourt, a professor of complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute.

It’s difficult to hold a job or raise healthy children without access to water, transportation, and sanitation.  And the few informal settlements that do have access to basic services often pay nine or 10 times more than other utility customers, he said.  

Asa Giertz/World Bank

Bettencourt’s Santa Fe Institute is joining with Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) to develop a database that organizes information on 7,000 slums worldwide, allowing a comprehensive analysis of slums, a comparison of settlements, and more comparative information on social inclusion. The data was collected by citizens who lived in the slums and mapped their own settlements.  

“Facts such as one communal water tap for every 800 households in a slum are so powerful that they convince government officials why they need to improve living conditions.  Information becomes a tool for engaging government and is much more effective than the past practices of picketing and confrontation,” said Celine D’Cruz, SDI Coordinator.

Moving Beyond ‘Bricks and Mortar’

Several trends are making the push for social inclusion more important than ever, said Maitreyi Das, a lead social development specialist with the World Bank Group.  The huge spatial transition of urban areas, the increased frequency of severe weather and climate-induced storms, and the explosion of information technology are just some of the factors changing the way cities plan and grow.

“Things that were okay and enough to do yesterday are not okay and enough today,” Das said. “The framework for social inclusion is broad; it’s about the process of improving the ability, opportunity and dignity of people – who may be disadvantaged on the basis of their identity – to take part in society.”

Diana Mitilin, an economist and social development specialist at the International Institute for Environment and Development, agreed.

“Social inclusion is more than just democracy or economics,” she said. “It’s about how a city treats its poor, how it works with marginalized groups, and how it involves the excluded.”  

Recent work in Indonesia has found that the urban poor put a high value on the co-benefits that come with being included in society, said Judy Baker, a lead urban specialist in the World Bank Group’s East Asia and Pacific region. A survey conducted in poor urban areas cited increased income, secure employment and education as the top three priorities for poor and marginalized citizens.

In many cities, urban land is so expensive that the poor are pushed out, Baker said. She joined Mona Serageldin, vice president of the Institute for International Urban Development, in stressing the importance of urban land management to create sustainable, inclusive cities.  “There is intense competition for urban land,” Serageldin said. 

Wahba, who organized the Jan. 14 workshop, said solutions will “take complex, multifaceted partnerships.” He advocated  a “holistic approach” to make cities more inclusive and provide the urban poor with access to affordable housing, electricity and sanitation services, transportation, education, jobs, and other opportunities necessary for economic and social development.

“While some recent slum upgrading projects have included a broader agenda, it’s far less common to find emphasis on other important strategies for inclusion, such as access to land and public transportation, job creation and support to informal entrepreneurs, and policies for the participation of traditionally excluded groups,” Wahba said. “We need to look at what we could be doing differently and what’s not on the agenda that should be.  We need to re-think the traditional approach to inclusive cities and move beyond just ‘bricks-and-mortar’ work in slums.”