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Building equitable & inclusive cities in the COVID era: A Planning perspective

Democratisation was front on centre as the need of the hour on Day 1 of the international symposium on ‘Reimagining Inclusive Cities in the COVID-19 Era’. The need to make residents of a city, especially those from the economically weaker sections and from slums, a critical part of the policy and decision making process, city planning as well as the implementation was repeatedly stressed by urban development experts and practitioners through the session.

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The first day of the virtual international symposium on September 20, 2021, started with a focused discussion on ‘Responsive urban planning framework towards building equitable and inclusive cities in the wake of COVID-19’.

“There is a new impetus to look at this issue both at the city level as well as the national level in South Asia, especially in India. On the other side there is the whole backlog this (pandemic) is going to create to global goals, to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)and to the New Urban Agenda (NUA). So, a rethinking of what universal services might look like in the post-COVID era was something we felt was very timely,” said Shubhagato Dasgupta, Senior Fellow and Director of the SCI-FI initiative at CPR, in his opening remarks.

The inaugural address to set the tone of the three-day international symposium was delivered by David Satterthwaite, Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London. He underscored the transformative nature of community involvement in the process of informal settlement and slum upgradation.

Satterthwaite drew on the experiences gained from the Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) in multiple countries.He noted that hostility to information gathering evaporated when a member of their own community was involved in the process. Their involvement also led to greater trust and awareness and led to a comprehensive broad basing of the nature of information that could be gathered. This information would also be contextualised and could in turn be used to formulate relevant interventions in a timely manner.

Satterthwaite also said successful examples of slum and informal settlement upgrading usually include and depend on much better relations between informal settlement dwellers and local government. He said this engagement, when done right, could form the foundation from which other exclusions can be addressed.

The next session was an exploration of experiences from the Global South. Experts shared their experiences in carrying out the upgradation efforts in Brazil’s Sao Paulo, Kenya’s Nairobi and India’s Mumbai. The session was moderated by Anaclaudia Marinheiro Centeno Rossbach, Regional Manager LAC of the Cities Alliance.

Speaking of the learning from Sao Paulo, Fernando Mello Franco, the city’s former Secretary of Urban Planning, drew a picture of vulnerability that was concentrated away from major areas of government investment like roads and public transport.

He pressed the concept of stressed communities as key force multipliers in the context of responding to crises such as the pandemic. Suggesting the use of the term ‘physical distancing’ as a more suitable term over ‘social distancing’ in the context of the pandemic, Franco recalled examples from Sao Paulo where slums which had stronger community bonds had experienced lower death rates due to COVID, often lower than the municipal average that included more affluent areas.

Jane Weru, Executive Director of the Akiba Mashinani Trust (AMT) from Nairobi lined out her experiences from interventions in Nairobi’s sprawling Mukuru area, which was declared as a Special Planning Area. She said the local government had promoted a sectoral approach and involved 46 organisations and community representatives in the upgradation of the slum.

In the context of the pandemic, she said there had been a paradigm shift in how health services need to be prioritised. “This has happened in Kenya, is an appreciation that public health interests far supersede the interests of private property. So therefore, in the face of the pandemic, regardless of the title interests of individual, the state should enter and provide basic services that will ward off present and future pandemics. I think that is another principle upon which the future reimagining of cities should be visited,” Weru said.

Vidyadhar Phatak, former head of the Planning Division of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) demonstrated that a top-down planning approach could lead to deeply entrenched systemic issues that could reduce the efficacy of slum clearance, rehabilitation or upgradation efforts.

Phatak outlined some unintended consequences of the decades-long reliance on private players as a part of the slum clearance efforts for below-par outcomes for residents. He shared examples where the construction of tightly-packed apartments to replace slums had led to houses that did not have enough light or ventilation and potentially led to higher incidence of diseases like tuberculosis. He said the reliance on private developers, who had profit considerations, continued to be looked on positively by the political class because they would not have to scramble to find dedicated budgetary allocations.

Phatak further said some of the present problems faced by slum upgradation efforts had their roots in restrictions that local governments came up with to control unregulated construction by slum residents. He said the easing of these restrictions were being used as incentives to the private developers.

“The apparent success of the SRA model (slum rehabilitation in Mumbai) depended on the supply side constraint, both natural and regulatory, which kept boosting the prices because of the scarcity of developments rights in the market. This scarcity of development is being attempted to be used as a solution to housing. First you create a constraint then you use a relaxation of these constraints as an incentive. This is not the optimal policy option in this case,” Phatak said.

These sessions were followed by a panel discussion of the evening on the creation of ‘Responsive urban planning frameworks in building equitable and inclusive cities in the time of pandemic’, moderated by Aparna Das, Senior Advisor at Gesellschaftfür Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). The discussion sought to address the meaning and nature of planned development and the need to bridge the intentions and implications of the actions of planners.

Sheela Patel, Founder-Director of the Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), questioned the foundation of the planning process – data collection. “We are countries that have huge poverty and deficits which are not going to be solved by cute little tinkering of little plans. All the digitalisation that we are inheriting from global excitement of big data, we are not understanding the political value of data that should be in the hands of poor people” she said.

Patel spoke of the politics of knowledge and to whom it goes and what it does. She said only if the data is in the hands of the poor could they make relevant political decisions on what to do with it and what questions to ask. She said this was critical because an increasing component of planning is based on reliable data.

Hong Soo Lee, Senior Urban Specialist (Smart Cities) at the Urban Sector Group of the Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) spoke on the need for urban planners to take into account more than just one policy objective while drawing out master plans. He pointed to the need to stitch together the planning for civic services and transport alongside efforts at slum upgradation and regeneration, instead of dealing with these policy areas in isolation from each other.

The Brazilian model came up for examination again in the context of using data in the policy making process. Tereza Herling, Urban and Housing Specialist, Academic at Mackenzie University’s Architecture and Urbanism School and also former Joint Secretary for Urban Development of São Paulo pointed to social involvement as a prerequisite to effective urban planning.

Speaking of the existence of social movements in her country as well as the legislative framework recognising land having a social function, Herling said reliable streams of data were critical to decide the prioritisation in the deployment of financial resources. “I understand that social movement organisations are very important prerequisites to foster public policies to go forward… These social movements in Brazil were responsible in the important achievement of the legal framework of the city statutes,” she said. Herling added that it is important to bring planning data not just to the public at large, but also introduce them in schools so children can be made aware of their cities and the rights associated with it, as a mode of strengthening social movements.

The flip side of social mobilisation in the field of urban planning was presented by Georg Jahnsen, Project Manager, SUD-SC at GIZ. He spoke of the situation in Germany, where there would be little engagement by members of the community even when the process allowed for feedback and inputs. He said while the need to make planning processes democratic was critical, it was also incumbent on the planners to ensure that the community is not just made aware of these rights but also encouraged to participate.

Day 2:

The second day of the international symposium, September 22, will feature discussions on ‘Upgrading informal settlements to foster resilient cities against future pandemics’. The sessions will commence at 4:30 pm IST.