Wanted: more inclusive, resilient, sustainable cities

An IIED workshop in Buenos Aires drew out lessons on how to develop more inclusive, resilient and sustainable cities.

Jorgelina Hardoy's picture
Insight by 
Jorgelina Hardoy
Jorgelina Hardoy is an IIED international fellow with the Human Settlements Group
20 November 2015
Participants at the workshop on sustainable cities organised by IIED and IIED-América Latina in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Photo: IIED-América Latina)

Participants at the workshop on sustainable cities organised by IIED and IIED-América Latina in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Photo: IIED-América Latina)

Eighty per cent of Latin Americans live in urban areas. There has been a rapid increase in the urban population since 1950, reaching similar levels to Europe by 1990 and going on to surpass them. But many cities are very unequal, with many urban dwellers living in sub-standard conditions.

The result of rapid urbanisation, urban poverty, environmental degradation and institutional weakness is a complex and challenging urban agenda that needs to be addressed through integrated and inclusive policies.

Nonetheless, there are innovative examples of cities that are striving to become more inclusive, resilient and sustainable, from across the region. This was the focus of a recent IIED and IIED-América Latina workshop in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The following table shows the percentage of population living in urban areas from 1950-2050. Click on the image to expand it. (Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015), World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, (ST/ESA/SER.A/366, p. 39)

Table showing the percentage of population living in urban areas 1950-2050

"Sustainable development will be urban or it will not be"

As Augusta Herrera, former mayor of Quito (Ecuador) and the director of CITE, Flacso (Spanish language website) made clear, there is no chance of achieving sustainable development globally unless focus and work goes into addressing the challenges of achieving sustainable development in urban areas. 

Debates around equity, social inclusion, infrastructure, resource use and waste management have to be understood through an urban lens as these issues are key. What cities do or don't do will have a significant global impact. 

Local government has a crucial role to play

To achieve sustainable development in cities largely depends on the actions and capacity of local governments. There are already good examples of dynamic and accountable mayors delivering change on behalf of citizens. 

In Ilo (Peru), for example, the local environment has been improved through systematic planning, working through management committees (bringing together local government and residents) to jointly address urban infrastructure needs such as parks and pavements, and so on. 

In Manizales (Colombia) the local government has sought to integrate urban environmental planning and disaster risk reduction, and in Rosario (Argentina) local authorities have integrated health policies, social inclusion and urban planning. Meanwhile, other cities such as Medellin (Colombia) have concentrated on issues of mobility and the development of public spaces such as libraries to promote social integration.

There are also great examples of innovation, such as municipalities forming associations to work together or the use of participatory budgeting. Indeed the region has pioneered this approach, with several cities adjusting the mechanism to better fit their needs and possibilities. Compensation mechanisms and tools to capture increases in land values due to urban changes have also been pioneered.

Despite these examples, local governments are too often left out of discussions. Where, for example, were local authorities in discussions around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Local governments must be involved in delivering sustainable development, and if they are to do this effectively, they must engage with civil society and work together to address urban challenges.

But local governments must also ensure good governance. They must involve citizens in planning and delivery, recognise the role played and contributions of different actors coming from the private sector and from civil society and be accountable for their actions.

Innovative approaches such as participatory budgeting and collaborative planning help to strengthen democracy, as the examples discussed during the meeting showed.

Beyond the city limits

Cities clearly face severe limitations in their ability to address urban, social, economic and environmental problems alone. This requires working with networks of cities and associations, urban consortiums, and informal networks to better understand the needs and the challenges that trespass sectors, government levels, stakeholder needs and city administrative boundaries. The end should be a better integration and coordination of policies, planning and resources, relaying on a shared idea of the "city we want". 

Yet rather than finding common solutions, cities are too often forced to compete with each other for resources.

The challenges of any one city inevitably link to its particular characteristics and so while some problems are shared, many are specific. This means that there is little scope for a top-down one-size-fits-all approach to finding solutions. 

Cities are also frequently limited in their powers – with decentralisation rarely a reality. Municipalities have little say over the level and use of resources, and need to engage in constant negotiations with often more powerful government levels. Many cities lack the capacity to secure these resources, leaving them disadvantaged in attempts to improve.

Federal or national governments can have a role in guiding the development of cities, providing frameworks and tools for implementation. They can provide a long term, strategic view so that policies respond to urban equity with social and environmental sustainability.

But this requires a focused urban agenda – urban themes tend to be messy and complex. Rather than top-down approaches, collaboration and agreement is needed over key policy issues.

Joined-up approaches

One key shift that has been positive is the growing recognition that a joined-up approach is needed, integrating urban planning with environmental planning, and recognising the links between different kinds of urban challenge.

This change has been supported by the appreciation that there are different stakeholders within the urban development process. Many NGOs and social movements have been strategic partners with local governments, and have provided valuable support and contributed to urban agenda shifts. They are all key players supporting local governments in addressing and integrating four urban agendas: urban development, disaster risk reduction and relief, climate change adaptation and climate change mitigation. 

There are many lessons and good examples from Latin America – and there has also been considerable self-criticism in the push towards setting higher standards. Clearly what is lacking is more implementation.

What was perhaps most surprising was the clear need to share experiences more widely between Latin American cities and the experts working to shape them; as well as a need to strengthen institutional capacities (both government and community sectors). 

Jorgelina Hardoy (jhardoy@iied-al.org.ar) is an IIED international fellow with the Human Settlements Group.