Inclusive Cities – But who pays?

The world today is becoming increasingly difficult to classify along old ideological strands of left and right, or liberal and conservative. Essentially, it is divided between those who have benefited greatly from globalization, and those who have qualms about its impact on the environment and the vulnerable.

While the new right believes in a free market, wealth accumulation, exclusivity, exceptionalism and stronger state protection; the new left today is defined less by working class solidarity (virtually destroyed in any case, by 25 years of globalization) and more by its concern for the environment, renewable energy, climate change, gender discrimination and universally acceptable and ‘politically correct’ causes like child labour, slavery, LGBT rights and extreme poverty. The new left mantras are: Inclusion, Sustainability and Equity. And they are spattered all across the latest draft (18 July 2016) of the UN-Habitat’s New Urban Agenda, expected to be discussed, modified and accepted at the Habitat III in Quito, come October.

A look at the Agenda’s principles and commitments makes this point very clear:

Leave no one behind, by ending poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including the eradication of extreme poverty, by ensuring equal rights and opportunities, socio-economic and cultural diversity, integration in the urban space, enhancing livability, health and well-being; promoting safety and eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence; ensuring public participation; and providing equal access for all to physical and social infrastructure and basic services.

Sustainable and inclusive urban economies, by leveraging the agglomeration benefits of well-planned urbanization, high productivity, competitiveness and innovation; ensuring full and productive employment creation and equitable access for all to economic and productive resources and opportunities; preventing land speculation; and promoting secure land tenure.

Environmental sustainability, by promoting clean energy, resource and land use efficiency in urban development, as well as protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, including adopting healthy lifestyles in harmony with nature; ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns; building urban resilience; reducing disaster risks; and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The draft agenda then moves on to transformative commitments for sustainable urban development, covering everything like: growing inequality and discrimination in cities; growth of internal, international and crisis migration; inadequate housing and social infrastructure; and paucity of safe public spaces. On institutions of urban governance, the agenda commits to facilitate grassroots democracy and also look beyond city-specific governments, to larger regional mechanisms.

Please bear in mind that this is an agenda for a fast changing world, where the face of urbanization will be definitively Asian:

Urbanization by 2030

And that is why, when it comes to the commitments to the urban economy, I find it too rose-tinted, idealistic and impractical. For instance point #51 reads:

We commit to recognize the working poor in the informal economy, particularly women, as contributors and legitimate actors of the urban economies, including the unpaid and domestic workers. We further commit to develop a gradual approach to formalization with a view to facilitating the transition from the informal to the formal economy, extending access to legal and social protections to informal livelihoods, as well as support services to the informal workforce.

If the new urban age is going to be essentially Asian, then there are two fallacies in the above point: The urban informal sector is no more the exclusive realm of the urban poor; and the assumption that efforts to formalize the informal will be welcomed by the practitioners of informality is also false – at least in the prevailing Asian context.

In India, for example, if you are redecorating your house, it is possible to procure the services of a decorator, builder, plumber, electrician, AC man without paying a penny tax, and you may even buy the materials in cash (without receipt) and save some more on tax! It is the middle class, and not the poor, who keep the urban informal sector going. Secondly, although everybody likes the idea of ‘inclusive’ municipal services, nobody likes the idea of ‘inclusive’ taxes, rates and user charges to pay for them. As a result, every hike proposed by municipal officers tends to get shot down by our elected representatives as being ‘anti-people’, thus ensuring their victory in the next election… And the infrastructure and services continue to deteriorate because of inadequate funding.

So if Habitat III is to be more than a talking shop for the international ‘urban mafia’, the New Urban Agenda needs to be more grounded in reality (and increasingly, the Asian reality) and propose more practical ways of making both income and expenditure truly ‘inclusive’ at the local level.

 

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