Sunday 3 April 2016

Cities as Engines of Economic Inclusion

Cities in developing countries are often portrayed as a source of problems such as high levels of unemployment, crime, poor services, overcrowding, pollution and ill-health. However, for the people who move to them, cities are seen as a means to a better life; a place to get work, start a business, and get an education. If designed and managed in a different way, can cities in developing countries enhance and direct this positive energy to build economic growth? Can the right characteristics and configuration be developed in urban areas to support positive development and avoid marginalisation? Is it possible for cities to be engines of economic inclusion, rather than the source of problems?

A recent study of Medellin in Columbia indicates that this is possible. It shows how the city has transformed its reputation as a city associated with crime and drug trafficking to a rapidly growing vibrant and inclusive economy. The study attributes this transformation to the following characteristics;

  • Cities do not make poor people. Cities attract poor and vulnerable individuals looking for a better future. Therefore, they must be accepted and integrated into the city's dynamics in order to foster their individual and collective potential. As shown by the 8.9% reduction in poverty between 2008 and 2013, according to Colombia’s department of statistics.
  • Architecture must never be a barrier to human interaction. The best way to reduce inequality is to promote connections and face-to-face engagement between individuals, without regards to their socioeconomic condition.
  • Public and accessible urban services reduce inequality. Allowing individuals across the board to enjoy a city, its surroundings and services are the best ways to make them active citizens.
  • Education drives change. Placing libraries and other cultural assets alongside public transport systems played a central role in selling the new brand the city wanted to create for itself, placing it squarely in the collective mindset.
  • Using technology as a means and not as the end itself. Medellin understood that whatever technological upgrades were needed, its success would rest with the function it fulfills and not in the scientific advancement it represents.
  • Last, but not least, placing culture high on the list of priorities helps to unleash a citizen's potential. Culture plays a major role in a city's transformation due to its ability to bringing people together, to move forward from traditional socioeconomic paradigms, and to share a vision and common values.

These characteristics are reflected in criteria in the BEST and SBAT tools which aim to support positive, inclusive development in urban areas and buildings. The tools identify infrastructure prerequisites required for inclusive sustainable development and measure the extent to which these are integrated in buildings and urban areas.

The tools have a very strong emphasis on the local area and on the nature of services, products and interaction that can be accessed within easy walking distance of a building. Thre is also a strong emphasis on local services such as access to education and health facilities as well as economic opportunities and productive technology. The tools are available to inform urban development and building projects and are particularly suitable for developing country contexts.

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