REPORT: Bridging the Urban Divide


By URBACT, on April 23rd, 2010

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Under the patronage of the EU Parliamentary Urban Intergroup (presided over by MEP Jan Olbrycht), this bi-annual UN “state of cities” report was launched today in Brussels by MR. Jean Bakole (Director of UN Human Settlements Programme) and one of the principal authors Mr. Eduardo López Moreno.

Following up on the Urban Forum of Rio de Janeiro (17,000 delegates) the report presents a view of worldwide urban trends, highlighting many of the complexities also confronting the URBACT community. While critical social, economic and environmental challenges are set out in detail, there is also recognition of the potential and opportunities which our cities represent.
This year for the first time the report is accompanied by a supplement entitled “State of Urban Youth 2010/2011: Levelling the Playing Field”, a research focused specifically on the youth in our cities.

However the key message is encapsulated in the sub-title “Bridging the Urban Divide” where Eduardo López Moreno placed emphasis on the notion that “our cities contain in fact 2 cities within one urban entity”, where the division between rich and poor is determinant and often defined by “invisible borders”. Where the opportunities which cities represent are not the property of all their inhabitants. This conclusion which will come as no real surprise, is set within the context of a new urban hierarchy, characterised by mega regions, urban corridors and city regions where it is suggested that urban growth can be more appropriately defined as regional growth at the urban level. “Cities are thus  merging together to create urban settlements on a massive scale”.

The key findings of the report afford us with some instructive and intriguing statistics and statements, notably: “that cities are making countries rich and not the other way round” backed by figures which demonstrate that the more countries are urbanised the more wealth they generate. However this has to be set against findings which inform us that cities are growing spatially twice as fast as their population growth. The link to urban sprawl and informal settlement (bidonvilles, favelas, slums…) is quickly and adroitly made. Figures suggest that global measures to improve conditions of slum dwellers are having significant positive effect, in that the proportion of slum dwellers has been substantially reduced over the last ten years. However the absolute numbers of this type of urban inhabitant continue to increase dramatically. From estimates of 827 million slum dwellers in 2010, projections indicate that we can expect the total to have passed 1 billion by 2020. Recent extreme events seriously dislocating the urban dimension (Haiti, flooding and landslides…) remind us that not only are slum dwellers deprived in relation to indicators of “quality of life” but importantly are also the most vulnerable in terms of unpredictable and major impacts, such as natural catastrophes, pandemics, crop failure and famine.

The advocacy role of the report stresses the need to actively address urban inequalities and bridge the divide where economically poor evidently equates with being poor politically, socially and culturally. The objective of reconstructing inclusive cities is supported in the setting out of 5 essential stages to advance the process:

  • Assessing the past and measuring progress
  • More effective stronger institutions
  • Building new linkages and alliances among the various tiers of governance
  • Demonstrating a sustained vision to promote inclusiveness
  • Ensuring the redistribution of opportunities

In common with URBACT this advocacy is based on building common understanding of the predominant position of cities in determining economic and social futures and shaping development policy in general. The European dimension and concern for this issue was further confirmed by the presence of Wladek Piskorz  representing DG Regio, while Pascaline Gaborit (URBACT Lead Expert, EGENIUS) made a more concrete connection with European experience in terms of urban inequalities, reminding the audience that data emerging from World Health Organisation sources is confirming worrying disparities in health conditions in population groups across EU cities.

To end I refer you to another quote which I discovered in the report:
“In general terms income equalities in developed countries are low. However, altogether, income equalities in developed countries increased between the mid-1980’s and 2005. Little is known about inequalities in European urban areas specifically, as available data is generally not disaggregated to individual cities. Still, nationwide aggregates do not always reflect disparities in general urban or city-specific incomes” – do I hear the voice of Claude Jacquier – and city aggregates do not necessarily reflect disparities at neighbourhood level?

Philip Stein
URBACT Thematic Pole Manager

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