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Reforming city planning to incorporate slums

A sustainable future is only possible if all members of society are included. Today, millions of people are overlooked by governments, as they live in illegal settlements or cannot afford to voice their opinion in the political arena. In the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2012 report, Eric Belsky describes sustainability through the lens of urban development, arguing that slums be incorporated into city-planning and be a forethought in the planning process.

As of 2010, slums are being rapidly built to provide shelter and community for "approximately one-third of the world’s urban population in developing countries" (1). The fast pace of urban development makes it difficult for regional and municipal governments to address slums through standard city-planning, often resulting in slums lacking critical infrastructure, such as clean water access.

Over the past fifty years there has been a paradigm shift in city planning. As Belsky describes in Chapter 3 of the State of the World 2012, during the 1950s to 1960s, cities were planned by the public sector. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s there was a dramatic shift towards market liberalization and privatization of public goods, such as sewerage systems and other infrastructure. This marked a new planning paradigm, where private companies create enabling frameworks that allow private capital to flow to projects without public involvement.

Currently most city planning outlines where systems, such as water distribution and sewerage systems, roadways, and electric grids will be developed, and fail to consider where slum development will occur in the future or where slums already exist. Therefore, as construction expands roadways or other large infrastructure, the poor may be further marginalized as they are pushed from the land they occupy, but for which they hold no official title or ownership.

Obstacles to city planning reforms are further enhanced as regional and municipal authorities lack coordination between levels of government, and fail to incorporate community members in the planning process. Slums, in particular, are overlooked during the development stages of small and large infrastructure projects. This lack of engagement diminishes the benefits to all parties involved and affected by the project. Cities that consider the needs of their poor can better incorporate slums into the city and their economy.

Many cities are recognizing the need to integrate slums into the planning process and expand access of critical infrastructure to the slums. Belsky outlines Manila's success in developing a municipal water system that meet the community's needs. "The municipal government use[d] penalties and the prospect of profits to encourage the city's two water concessions to comply with the goal of providing near-universal" coverage (p 51). Additionally, the municipal water administration "no longer require[d proof of] land title for a metered connection, and users [could] pay for the connection in installments" (p 51). The payment installments were offered in several ways, in order to accomodate different levels of income. "By 2001, the water concessions which were created in the mid-1990s, had installed 238,000 new connections, 54 percent of which were in impoverished neighborhoods" (p 51).

Manila provides an encouraging example for other cities working to incorporate slums into constant urban development and evolution. In order for cities to prosper sustainably into the future, slums must continue to be thought about prior to city planning, and be engaged in the planning process. Governments must exert their influence in the planning process and work with private companies in order to protect the rights and interests of all cities' citizens.

Although government must still address questions of land ownership, affordable housing, increasing the assets of the poor, and improving methods of community organization, each city will solve these problems uniquely, in a manner that fits their circumstance. But by beginning to reform the city planning process, cities may begin to take steps towards effectively and fairly reducing slum development and ensuring sustainable prosperity through sound urban development.

(1) Belsky, page 41, Chapter 3: State of the World 2012, Worldwatch Institute.

(This was first posted on and Written by Antonia Sohns)


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