Building Inclusive Cities
Sophie McManus
September 30, 2021
The idea of an “Inclusive City” is not new. The notion that cities should be able to serve all citizens equally and in a way that breaks down structural inequalities and disparities has been a topic of debate and on city agendas across the world since the early 2000s. With the United Nations leading the way, followed by other global actors such as the World Bank, UN-HABITAT, and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) subsequently taking interest, the idea of an inclusive city has emerged as a critical paradigm in the study and practice of city building. (Liang et al, 2021). The launch and adoption of the New Urban Agenda at the 2016 Habitat III conference signifies a concrete global commitment to the principles of inclusivity, sustainability, and equity. While there appears to be inherent consensus in principle around what “inclusive” means and how it relates to cities, there isn’t necessarily a clear and agreed on definition of what an “inclusive city” actually is. In the study of cities more generally, terms have emerged and existed with the same level of vagueness, but nonetheless are able to garner support and gain momentum around the concept. This exact trend can be observed with the “inclusive city” concept, with support and traction around the ideas and principles but less clarity on a specific definition and agreement on how it translates to work on the ground and changes in citizens’ daily urban life. What does an inclusive city look like? What best practices can be observed and what practices haven’t worked? What does success look like? These questions don’t have specific answers, and have different solutions for different contexts, but knowing what dynamics to consider and linking these with specific examples is the first step to having a more clear understanding of what it takes to make a city more inclusive.

One of the most critical dynamics to consider is that cities function through a complex network of professionals whose daily work shapes the multifaceted elements of urban life. Economists, researchers, planners, engineers, data scientists, government officials, construction workers, developers, activists, and citizens are just a few examples of actors interacting in the urban system. In considering how to ground the practice of pursuing an inclusive city, it is important to recognise that each actor has varying resources, capacity, knowledge and perspectives that shape actions and decisions made on a daily basis. These decisions and actions often take place within a broader policy framework and governance structure that either limit, facilitate or enhance the decision making process and ultimately set the tone and direction for how decisions get implemented. Given this level of complexity in cities, developing a practice of inclusive cities that is appropriate for all contexts is not only impossible, but not advisable or useful.

The discussion above highlights an important dilemma. Without a clear definition of what makes up an inclusive city, the pursuit of an inclusive city [heads off in] every direction, and misses out on the opportunity to collectively and collaboratively define a coherent community of practice. However, given the vast diversity of contexts, and the unfathomable complexity of each city, a one size fits all approach is virtually impossible. How then do urbanists conceptualise an inclusive city that captures both the complexity and broadness of the term and principles behind it?

Our interest in joining the conversation about inclusive cities is related to the intersection of technology, data, and urban governance and the ways in which these can play a role in building more inclusive cities. While much of the urban sphere is viewed through domains or sectors such as housing, transportation, and infrastructure development, the use of data and technology in the urban sphere is a unique transversal element that builds connections across sectors and facilitates new innovative ways of solving pressing urban issues. As a small civil society organisation (CSO), our insight is mostly drawn from experiences at the municipal or metro level, where we work with local governments to build capacity around understanding how to use data in planning and decision making, increasing space for communities’ voice, and working to strengthen trust and accountability between civil society and governance systems. What we’ve noticed is that while there are inclusive principles that can be universal, these aren’t grounded until they have practical applications. The ability to have concrete practical applications of inclusive city principles requires a specific focus on the realities of those experiencing exclusion, while also taking into account the capacity and resources of local government to address the needs of marginalised groups. Oftentimes, there is a tension between the needs of these communities and the ability of government to be able to address them.

South African cities present an interesting opportunity to reflect on the ideology and practice of forming a more inclusive city and society. The legacy of apartheid in South Africa has resulted in a highly spatially segregated society along race and class lines. Despite having one of the most progressive and inclusive constitutions, many aspects of urban life still reflect structural inequalities that deeply impact a vast majority of South Africans. Efforts have been made to address disparities and inequality by all levels of government, community organisations, civil society organisations, and private sector, but persistent poverty and inequality make South African cities far from being inclusive. For the South African context, access to very low-cost or no-cost housing is a very critical need that often goes unmet, leaving very low or no-income families to find their own means of accommodations, which is commonly some form of informal dwelling. Access to housing would undoubtedly be one way to work towards a more inclusive society, but doing so at the scale and pace necessary is a major challenge at all levels of government, in part because of the housing policies and legislation specific to South Africa. This highlights the point that while access to housing for all is an inclusive city principle, realising inclusive principles on the ground is nuanced and is often constrained by the specific political and economic environment of a given context.

As stated previously, the use of data and technology in the urban sphere is a unique transversal element that builds connections across sectors and facilitates new innovative ways of solving pressing urban issues. For Open Cities Lab, we work to build inclusion and a more inclusive city through three pillars: empowering citizens, building government capacity, and increasing trust and accountability. The rationale behind these three pillars is that communities, government, and civic space are critical features of how cities function beyond the built environment. While these are fairly broad impact pillars, their common thread is that we believe an inclusive city is one where openness is pervasive in spaces, structures, society, data, knowledge and much more. Reflecting on our experience over the last few years, three specific considerations for building inclusive cities through our impact framework have begun to emerge:

  • Co-designing and co-creating as a way to build capacity within government. Building capacity with government doesn’t only take place in workshops and trainings, but in the daily interactions and negotiations that happen in the collaboration process. Co-designing (as opposed to a consultancy or contracting model) encourages government officials to actively engage and take ownership over work that is normally done with government acting in a project management role, rather than an implementing role. Especially in our projects where there is some element of data sharing or a need to engage with technology, the co-design process allows us to provide hands-on digital literacy “training” while also embedding the skills learned into a specific use case relevant to government officials.

  • When designed and deployed with inclusive principles, technology can bridge the gap between residents’ voice and government decision making. However, the ability of technology to amplify residents’ voices and for these voices to be incorporated into decision making is not a given — this connection is built through intentional and inclusive engagement and co-design processes that foster mutual understanding and capacity building on both sides. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to deploying technology or data systems, each project and solution must be fit to purpose and designed to accommodate users’ skills and access to resources, while also creating effective links and pathways to future visions based on equity and improving livelihoods.

  • We have to proactively work to counter exclusionary actions, especially those that threaten transparency, openness, and accountability. It is not enough to only create solutions tied to existing exclusionary actions. We must also learn how to develop projects and solutions that anticipate future exclusions, future threats to transparency, and movements that threaten to reverse progress already made. This is not an easy task, and at times can feel less urgent than the immediate problems we know residents are facing. Dialogue between communities of practice that debate and conceptualise future threats could be a useful strategy in working towards this consideration.

Building an inclusive city requires transversal governance and coordination across agencies and sectors through a glocal approach. What this means is grounding a global perspective in the local context. Critical to achieving more inclusive cities is the recognition that while agendas, ideology, and principles may be set at a broader scale, the ability to ground these in the specific realities of different contexts in a meaningful and impactful way is the challenge at hand. Further to this, in the process of grounding inclusive city ideals, we must also work to systematically capture findings and learnings at the local level that can inform and provide learnings back through glocal channels, and continuously refine our understanding of what works in building inclusive cities. In our work, our focus is on the role of data and technology and how to leverage our skills and understanding of our sector to contribute to the process of building a more inclusive city.

At Open Cities Lab, we are constantly refining our approach and framing of the problem, but we are positive about the strides we have made and the prospects of more ground to be gained.

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