Development, Government and governance, International relations, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

11 February 2020

A recent Grassroots Assembly brought together the urban poor from across Asia, and its participants urged the importance of including communities in policy-making, Charrlotte Adelina reports.

Many studies in the urban policy realm end with a wistful call for greater collaboration between different stakeholders – whether they be real estate developers, planners, ‘informal’ city dwellers or workers, civil society actors, citizens, academics, or policymakers – as well as between different levels and wings of the government.

However, political and institutional barriers in governing cities are difficult to overcome in Asia, as stark wealth inequalities within cities have led to tension over resources. Further, urban policy has unhelpfully tended to frame issues within simplistic and misleading binaries, categorising things widely as legal or illegal, formal or informal, and planned or unplanned.

More on this: Podcast: Revitalising urban areas with Helen Sullivan

As we participate in WUF 2020 in Abu Dhabi, it is time to reflect on previous urban forums to explore how the WUF could act as a place for sparking collaboration and coming up with ideas that might make cities more liveable.

One example of the challenges policymakers will face with this is the Asia Pacific Urban Forum (APUF), held in October 2019, and the Grassroots Assembly event held alongside it.

The Asia-Pacific Urban Forum (APUF) is a regional gathering of policymakers, citizens, researchers, and business and civil society members organised every four to five years by The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.

The Grassroots Assembly – convened by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, and attended by the Huairou Commission, Shack/Slum Dwellers International, and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing – was a day-long event preceding APUF.

The Assembly involved the sharing of experiences of community leaders, street vendors, community architects, and slum dwellers from cities across Asia. The Assembly also discussed barriers and came up with strategies for obtaining land, basic financial support and housing, women’s leadership, community resilience, and grassroots participation in city planning for poorer city dwellers.

Trying to make a decent livelihood, finding secure shelter, accessing basic services, raising a family, and taking care of the elderly are tough enough tasks in Asia’s big cities, and citizens are often forced to so under policies and systems that are hostile to their needs.

At the Assembly, most community members wanted more autonomy in deciding their future in the city, and some complained that governments are not including them in city management processes.

More on this: Cities and the Sustainable Development Goals

A lack of trust was clear among participants, with community leaders agreeing that they felt governments don’t trust them to know what they want and that they won’t listen.

One could argue that arriving at an easy consensus in closed, homogenous sessions at forums like the APUF is unfavourable, as it points to a lack of diverse actors. The Assembly was especially devoid of perspective from other actors, many of whom have a powerful stake in urban development.

While one objective of the Grassroots Assembly was to allow poor communities to reflect on their experiences of poverty and exclusion in a safe space, the lack of participation from business groups, investors, real estate companies, and government meant that these players remained unable to learn from the struggle of communities to shape pathways to achieving a shared vision.

These absences are reflective of a lack of cross-sectoral integration in urban policy, and continued conflict in the ‘real world’ over land or resources between different interest groups.

Global conferences that aim to achieve inter-sectoral linkages and inter-disciplinary collaboration should be more aware of these pitfalls and invest more time in concentrated efforts at integration, even if it leads to a lack of consensus. In many ways, interactions between stakeholders as part of this discussion resembled the messy politics in the ‘unruly’ spaces of cities of Asia today.

As in real cities, different and often contradictory pathways to the achievement of ‘inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ cities – as envisioned by the Sustainable Development Goal 11 – were often being proposed in concurrent discussions.

As Ash Amin reflects, the city “is a place of engagement in plural politics and multiple spatialities of involvement”, but, as warned by AbdouMaliq Simone, “the attempted control of space and bodies weakens this dynamism”.

Developmental plans and projects which attempt to exclude anything ‘unruly’ and make public spaces into sanitised, private enclaves at the cost of the right to housing and livelihoods of the urban poor render claims to inclusiveness dubious.

As researchers, practitioners, and policymakers aim to make progress, they can address many of these issues with thoughtful event design and diverse participant selection. At the WUF and similar forums, they should recognise the value of including diverse actors, and explore the tensions between their goals to shape urban politics. This is an important step towards achieving an inclusive urban agenda.

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