Addressing inequalities

One of the key indicators is inequality and deprivation in the housing services and arrangements

Cities perform many functions and offer many benefits to their residents. Around half of the global population is living in cities since 2007. They help create agglomeration economies and form industrial districts to expand employment opportunities, augmenting economic growth.

In the processes, concentrated regions for economic activities are created that localise both the skills and work, cutting transportation costs, providing space for social networks and social capital.

Cities of the world create 60 percent of the global GDP as well. They contribute since cities are hubs of techno-entrepreneurial activities and provide engines of growth.

However, while the promises of cities are great and they have contributed to improvement in the standards of living, they have become problem spaces as well. Here, we shall discuss two of the issues which are plaguing the urban South as Pakistan is no exception to it. These problems are rising inequalities and the absence of local decentralised city governments to address these inequalities.

One of the key indicators is the inequality and deprivation in the housing services and arrangements. It is estimated that, “one billion people live in slums while in 2050, an expected 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, and three billion people will require adequate and affordable housing by 2030.”

Of these one billion people living in urban areas, the distribution is highly skewed. “80 per cent of the one billion are attributed to three regions: Eastern and South- Eastern Asia (370 million), sub-Saharan Africa (238 million) and Central and Southern Asia (227 million). This is the situation of the urban-South. It is alarming unlike the urban-North.

Another key factor causing inequalities that can hold countries back from opportunities arising from agglomeration economies is availability of safe, secure, cost-effective, and timely public transport. According to 2018 data from 227 cities in 78 countries, “almost half of urban residents did not have convenient access to public transport, and sub-Saharan Africa lagged further behind with only 18 percent of its residents having convenient access to the facility. “

Absence of such infrastructure creates zones of exclusion which can perpetuate economic, political and social seclusions and establish multiple layers of inequalities, such as access to quality and dependable healthcare and education other than the much-needed personal safety and security.

These inequalities are not only global but present with the boundaries of municipalities as well. There are many areas in Lahore, Karachi, and other Pakistani cities that lack access to such basic infrastructure. These pockets of exclusion are getting bigger and bigger with the passage of time. In Karachi, it is said that the Clifton Bridge divides Karachi in several ways. We need to think seriously about it.

Looking at cities to spot inequalities, the above-mentioned key indicators of urban living are central to the question of equitable development. One great vehicle to address the question of inequalities, which has been identified in various researches, is a local decentralised city government.

The disparities within cities are increasing with enormous economic, environmental and social costs. Such costs revolve around, “stifling possible innovation, distributing environmental harms in a starkly inequitable fashion, producing social landscapes of fear, conflict, tension and mistrust”.

A key factor causing inequalities that can hold countries back from opportunities is availability of safe, secure, cost-effective, and timely availability of public transport.

But can a city government do something about it? Researches show that they can do many things depending upon their capacity to handle various elements of service delivery and ward of elite capture on resources.

It is said that city governments can do wonders by focusing on certain aspects of changes in mechanism and models of local decentralised governance. They can go beyond the limits of urban service delivery to the protection of citizen’s rights and taking corrective actions to ensure distributive justice.

First, they can work on “distribution and deliberation” with activities designed to reformulate revenue measures, living wages or participatory budgeting. Second, they can work on “housing and planning,” such as equity planning, inclusionary zoning, anti-displacement measures, social housing programmes; and third, by helping develop “environment and infrastructure,” such as water and waste services, mass transit and non-motorised transport alternatives), and last but not least work on “urban citizenship,” such as freedom of information, association and movement, and open space strategies.

The last one mentioned here is one of the most overlooked in Pakistan. It must be noted that “connective matrix of streets and public spaces forms the skeleton of the city upon which everything else rests. Where public space is inadequate, poorly designed or privatised, the city becomes increasingly segregated. Investment in networks of streets and open public spaces improves urban productivity, livelihoods and access to markets, jobs and public services, especially in countries where over half of the urban workforce is informal”.

Globally speaking, research findings show that “the average share of the population within 400 metres walking distance of an open public space is around 31 percent, with huge variations among cities (from a low of 5 percent to a high of 90 percent)”.

Let us make it loud and clear, “a low percentage does not necessarily mean that an inadequate share of land is open public space, but rather that the distribution of such spaces across the city is uneven.” This is a marker of dangerously perpetuating inequality in city landscape.

In addition to the factors mentioned above, there is another phenomenon emerging in the global urban-South, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. It is Sino-centric production networks and associated peri-urban and other related geographies of infrastructure, such as airports, roads, railways, and ports.

Dr Seth Schindler at the University of Manchester, UK has recently written about the special characteristics of such initiatives and laid stress on researches to understand the dynamics of new urban planning designs and the opportunities and challenges associated with it.

The writer is a Chevening scholar and executive director of IMPACT Research   International

Addressing inequalities