On what basis are urban futures being decided?

By Martin Price and Hanna Ruszczyk, Durham University

There is little doubt that the world is urbanizing at a dramatic rate. In 1950, 30% of the world’s population lived in towns and cities. Today, that figure is 55% and is projected to rise to 68% by 2050. Increasingly, technology and data-driven insight are being viewed as the solution to the urban problems of today and tomorrow. ‘Smart Cities’ are a case in point, integrating technology into city life in order to maximise the efficiency and performance of ‘all things urban’; from water and waste management to security services to transportation networks. Working within a logic of limited budgets and rising expectations, data allows policy-makers to plan and design more effectively, anticipate risks, and keep track of urban life in ‘real time’.

But most people do not live in the mega-, major- or global cities in which the idea of technological and data-driven insight seems to be gaining the most traction. Approximately 58% of the world’s urban population live in cities with fewer than a million residents, and the vast majority live in cities with less than 500,000 residents. Despite their significance, small- and medium-sized cities remain off the map when it comes to debates around the urban future. This implies that the actions and desires of those living within these cities are not given sufficient consideration when designing and planning for the future for our cities.   

As an antidote to these trends, we argue that urban development needs to be far more people-orientated as opposed to data-driven, and needs to be informed by a more diverse range of urban contexts primarily by taking account of life in smaller cities across the global South. In a recently published article in Area, we document the articulated aspirations of communities in Zarqa (Jordan) and Bharatpur (Nepal); two medium-sized cities undergoing significant population growth but widely misunderstood by international policy-makers and development practitioners. By focusing on aspirations, we argue that the future of cities must belong to their residents. Concerns, hopes and aspirations of residents must take precedence over any insight-driven claims to improving efficiency, liveability, productivity, and opportunity (inevitably for some but not others).

In both cities, we listen to community groups attempting to work with local authorities in order to make their neighbourhoods more liveable – attempting to secure paved roads, clean streets, and safe, stable residential buildings. This focus on specific, local, urban infrastructure reflects the limited levels of control and influence these residents perceive themselves to have over issues of urban development. Furthermore, this listening exercise illuminates the degree to which residents must fight for adequate development in the here and now, given the ways in which the local authorities continually manage and even thwart these aspirations, in new and unanticipated ways.

We therefore emphasise the role of politics in shaping and stalling urban development. Improving the liveability of cities is rarely a question of having the right data at hand, but rather a question of political will, economic viability, legality, and societal pressure. We show how local authorities manoeuvre in ways that undermine people’s aspirations – causing people to respond and adapt to these unanticipated and often confusing developments.

Jana’a Neighbourhood in Zarqa, Jordan. Some residents have been seeking road access and street lighting between the neighbourhood and the bus station, located on the other side of the disused Hijaz railway line

By listening to the aspirations of specific communities, we feel able to articulate the concerns that affect people’s lives on a daily basis – full of nuances and emotions that cannot be easily quantified. Rarely do residents think about influencing how their cities will develop in the long-term, given the immediacy of existing development concerns and the limits of what is possible – in terms of both time and space. We argue that it is these neighbourhood-level concerns that risk being overlooked by the data-driven and less people-orientated approaches to urban development. We question the extent to which data analysis can capture not only the intricacies of people’s aspirations, but also the myriad of complexities and uncertainties of contemporary urban life that often frame and contextualise these aspirations. We also question whether the basic needs of these communities would be listened to in an age where data can identify the most cost-effective, most profitable, or highest impact interventions.

Just as data analysis produced by management consultancies and tech companies is likely to provide a particular and narrow view of urban development, the same is also true for humanitarian and development practitioners. Whether it be through the frameworks of risk and resilience in earthquake-prone Nepal, or the emergency responses to refugee crises in Jordan, developmental and humanitarian specialists often arrive in cities with preconceived ideas about what needs to be done, and what their donors are willing to fund. Rarely is it the case that city residents have an active role in setting and shaping the agenda for urban development. Residents are often “stakeholders” of the project, but lacking agency and decision-making ability.   

We question the extent to which government officials, aid practitioners, urban planners and geographers are aware of the aspirations of the world’s urban majorities and importantly, are willing to engage on this level. While acknowledging the potential role that data can play in our understanding of- and responses to the urban future, it is critical that we continue to listen to people in order to understand how the city is lived and anticipated. This is true now, and will be true in the future.

About the authors: Martin Price (@MartinPrice4) is PhD researcher and Hanna Ruszczyk (@hruszczyk) is Assistant Professor, both are based at the Department of Geography, Durham University.

Feature image caption: Bharatpur, Nepal.  Rapidly urbanising regional city whose population has doubled to 300,000 residents in three years.

References

Ruszczyk, HA, & Price, M. (2019). Aspirations in grey space: Neighbourhood governance in Nepal and Jordan. Area. 1– 8. https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12562

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights (ST/ESA/SER.A/352). Available from: https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/publications/files/wup2014-highlights.pdf

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2018). 68% of the World Population Projected to Live in Urban Areas by 2050, Says UN. 16th May. Available from: https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2018). The World’s Cities in 2018 – Data Booklet (ST/ESA/ SER.A/417). Available from: https://www.un.org/en/events/citiesday/assets/pdf/the_worlds_cities_in_2018_data_booklet.pdf

Wade, G., (2019). Smart Cities Developments – impacts on democracy and why we should remain critical. 8th January. Available from: https://developmenteducation.ie/blog/2019/01/smart-cities-developments/

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