This blog was written by Ya Ping Wang and Keith Kintrea [i].

World Cities Day 2020 aims to celebrate communities in cities as essential building blocks of positive economic, social and environmental change.

Its call for action is for communities to be integrated into policymaking and for a different kind of city to be co-created with urban managers. This call comes in an extraordinary year in which communities in neighbourhoods across the globe have been forced to develop their own responses to COVID-19, including its health risks but also its wrecking of livelihoods and food supply chains.

But new research from the GCRF Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods in 14 cities in Africa and Asia [ii] shows that trends in urban development are leading to cities that are socially and spatially fractured and provide a shaky basis on which any turn towards communities can be built.

The call of UN Habitat’s 2016 Urban Agenda for planning as a basis for more equitable and sustainable cities appears to have gone largely unheeded. Although most cities boast they have a master plan, neighbourhood planning is rare and almost always benefits only the rich and the emerging middle class.

Over the last 10 or 15 years most cities in the study have experienced large scale population growth – as much as 100% in the case of Dar Es Salaam – driven by rural and (sometimes) international migration. This is especially so for large cities and national capitals, even if the recent rate of growth has slowed. Population growth has been accompanied by rapid spatial transformation. Already dense inner cities have become ever more greatly densified, as existing neighbourhoods have become more crowded, taller new buildings constructed and green spaces and water bodies built over. In our study, Dhaka and Manila city represent the most extreme densification. Dhaka reached  32,000 people per square kilometre in 2015 and Manila City 71,000, probably the most densely populated city in the world.

SHLC research also shows that cities have sprawled out towards and beyond their boundaries, with the fastest growing African cities doubling in area.

Densities are also increasing on the urban periphery in most cases. But these new residential areas are usually informal settlements without any meaningful planning. Their communities are often poorly served – or not served at all – by basic infrastructure such as water, sewerage and electricity, and they are usually distanced from health and education services and from jobs, which cluster in central areas. In some cities, fast expansion of informal settlements means that the proportion of housing considered to be adequate by local norms has been falling, even as the economy grows.

There are exceptions to these trends. In all cities a small proportion of new development caters for privileged groups. This includes commercial development of condominiums and gated enclaves, as well as areas of suburban type detached houses. The benefits of professional urban planning – or at least of building regulation – is enjoyed predominately by the rich and emerging middle class whose neighbourhoods have basic site designing, road access and infrastructure provision. The other main exception are the study’s Chinese cities where most new residential areas are regulated and poor old town areas and urban villages are in the process of compulsory redevelopment.

In most cities in the research, neighbourhoods used to be divided by race, ethnicity and religion, and in South Africa (Cape Town and Johannesburg) and India (Delhi and Madurai) by institutionalised discrimination though apartheid or caste. Migrant origin and, in China, hukou status, were further sources of division. But across the 14 cities, to different degrees, these divisions are being replaced or at least blended by social class through housing market sorting.

So, in Dhaka, although there remain religious and occupational clusters, its new neighbourhoods are by far the most diverse in Bangladesh. However, the poor and even the middle class are shut out of well-regulated central neighbourhoods, and slum neighbourhoods sit side by side with wealthy areas. In South Africa, Johannesburg continues to show the shape of apartheid demarcation. Yet tropes about race and space are being modified by class mobility, evident in clusters across the city. Urban transformation is driven by service provision and travel connections as emergent key markers of spatial inequality.

Increasing inequality and division in cities will not lead to sustainability.

The communities that UN-Habitat urges should be engaged in city-making have so far been pushed into crowded informal settlements and slums or out to the city margins far from jobs and services. As the experience of COVID-19 again shows, major shocks have disproportionate negative impacts on poor urban neighbourhoods. Cities need to address the causes and consequences of urban neighbourhood and spatial division; pro-poor urban planning should become the reality rather than just a slogan.

[i] Ya Ping Wang is Professor of Urban Futures and Director of SHLC. Keith Kintrea is Professor of Urban Studies and Housing and Deputy Director of SHLC.

[ii]  This month the Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC) at the University of Glasgow published 14 new reports on African and Asian cities, which are the product of research on their internal structure and neighbourhood dynamics.

The cities are Delhi and Madurai in India, Dhaka and Khulna in Bangladesh, Manila City and Batangas City in the Philippines, Chongqing and Datong in China, Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, Dar Es Salaam and Dodoma in Tanzania and Kigali and Huye in Rwanda.

The reports are authored by members of SHLC based at  the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa;  Ifakara Health Institute, Tanzania; Khulna University, Bangladesh;  Nankai University, PR China; the National Institute of Urban Affairs, India; the  University of Rwanda; the University of the Philippines Diliman; and  University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.