Interviews: co-creating pathways to urban equality

How can we address urban inequality, particularly in light of current crises? Urban researchers respond to questions from a recent webinar that examined how we can advance the collective journey towards just urban futures.

Article, 23 November 2022
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South

Last month, IIED hosted an online discussion about a new wave of ‘pathways’ to urban equality, which have been co-constructed by active groups across Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Following the release of a special issue of Environment and Urbanization on pathways to urban equality (developed in partnership with the KNOW programme), moderator and co-guest editor Alexandre Apsan Frediani convened a panel of contributors. These were Thaisa Comelli (TC) of the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, Joseph Mustapha Macarthy (JM) of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre, Neha Sami (NS) of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, and discussant Caren Levy (CL) of UCL’s Development Planning Unit.

Four headshots

Left to right: Thaisa Comelli, Joseph Macarthy, Neha Sami and Caren Levy

Here the contributors address three key questions raised by the webinar’s attendees:

Q: What do the processes you have researched and engaged with tell us about how to address urban inequalities in ways that recognise diversity?

TC: In the Rocinha informal settlement in Rio de Janeiro, residents are telling stories that oppose or enrich dominant narratives about Rocinha, and about favelas generally. By collecting historical data and taking a long-term gaze on the settlement, they are unpacking how their identities are connected to the characteristics of where they live.

For example, while national and local censuses bring a more generic profile of the territory, residents’ own bottom-up data collection indicates that in the highest part of this very steep settlement live the highest number of Black residents, and in some sub-neighbourhoods live a higher concentration of single mothers.

Whiter migrants from Ceará (north-east of Brazil) are more concentrated in lower and less precarious areas. These new narratives are racial- and gender-sensitive, and therefore better able to inform future planning decisions.

JM: Our approach to inclusive settlement upgrading in Freetown, Sierra Leone has been about ensuring that planning decisions and actions are not based on partial knowledge.

We designed community and city learning platforms as spaces where diverse voices and actors can be mobilised to engage with the issues raised by day-to-day experiences. This process really speaks to voices that are often excluded, especially from decision-making, and taps into different pockets of situated knowledge, allowing participants to see and feel things from the diverse experiences within the city.

NS: Our research into planning education in Tanzania, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand revealed that as classes became more socially diverse, the kinds of questions that urban planning students were forced to face were very different as compared to a more homogeneous class.

The more diverse the faculty, too, the more diverse the ways in which questions of inequality were brought up in the classroom. And by taking students into the city and bringing the city into the classroom, they came face-to-face with inequality challenges and were also able to engage with non-conventional learners.

Q: What are some of the tangible actions, tools or instruments that have been successful in supporting co-production of pathways to urban equality alongside governance structures?

JM: Because no single organisation or individual has all the answers, the reform coalitions we have built in Freetown have created space for engagement, for reflection on what developments really mean for the city and for who, the kinds of knowledge that have been prioritised, and the assumptions made.

These coalitions have been transformative, including by linking authorities to the realities on the ground that constrain informal settlement residents from benefiting from the resources of the city, and from representation and recognition.

TC: Groups in Rocinha are trying to invert the order in which planning dynamics usually happen – for example inviting authorities into the settlement, so that they set the ground for the discussions and the agenda themselves, instead of participating in spaces that have been created and led by the government.

They are attempting to exert power over both the narrative and actual planning decisions.

Informal housing

Rocinha informal settlement in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Photo: Thomas Couto, via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

Q: How can we maintain the momentum of pathways to urban equality within the current context of acute crisis?

JM: What matters so much is commitment and interest. Reform coalitions are key, because once the collective interest grows, it comes with a lot of inbuilt capacity, including the impetus to organise around ways of creating and resourcing opportunities for reform.

TC: To engage with, understand and confront multiple narratives about the city and issues of mutual recognition is a crucial agenda for cities and urban residents, and particularly for institutions.

There is an urgent need to recognise the legitimacy of some of these narratives, the groups that produce them, and to really incorporate them into planning strategies – with parity.

NS: There are things that our research could not address but which are really important to equality, relating to the structure of universities – including their financing models.

We need to be able to hold these different elements together to move the conversation forward and deal with the relationship between pedagogy, our education systems and urban inequality.

CL: Citizens and social mobilisation have been so important to this momentum over a historical, long-term period, but there are also some very powerful things we can do, even within the short and medium term, in order to strengthen that.

We need to influence priorities, policies, budgets and capacities, and reframe the way we do things, the way we deliver them and what we're delivering.

Many of the examples in this special issue show communities engaging with this process, sometimes with the support of local government. It is possible to navigate the ‘room for manoeuvre’ for change over time, and to keep pushing forward for the kind of transformative change that we all think is so important.

Comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

Further resources