Preventing cities from collapsing

a conversation with Aisa Kirabo Kacyira

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

Ms. Kirabo, you view inequality and urban development as closely connected. Why?

Inequality exists in a more concentrated form in spaces where people live closely together, which is obviously the case in cities. In large cities real estate is expensive. If you put that together with what is all too often inadequate public transport, this means that poor and rich are separated from one another spatially.

In the meantime though, more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. That is a trend that is unlikely to diminish in the future – which is why we must deal with this in a pro-active and critical way. In a densely populated urban space, travelling distances are shorter and that is why, for example, public transport can cost less per capita, if it is well planned. That also opens up opportunities for reducing greenhouse gases.

But don’t some of the poorest cities in the world, such as those in the Central African Republic, have bigger problems to deal with than poor city planning?

Actually, it’s the opposite. Good urban planning can be a catalyst for growth and social progress in exactly those kinds of countries. I personally have taken political responsibility in a nation where there are scarce resources. As the mayor of the [Rwandan] capital, Kigali, I did not have a lot to work with. But I could still bring about a positive change with an improved strategy for urban development.

When there isn’t enough funding or when there are weak institutional structures – as you find in the world’s poorest countries – then the responsible parties can only do one thing: They have to try and identify the problems and then pro-actively plan around them. In those situation, city mayors and city planners are closest to the people on the ground. And with the right strategies they can achieve a lot, particularly if their governments support them. As it is, a lot of the basic problems in states like this have to do with urbanisation and urban development anyway.

How do you mean?

In many countries there are hundreds of thousands of people in transit, as internally displaced citizens. How and where can they be accommodated? And how to get the larger cities, that are often under pressure from population growth and the rural exodus they often see, to cooperate better?

In a lot of poorer countries there are conflicts that have lasted decades, that have resulted in locals losing their homes permanently. When locals suffer the consequences of these kinds of conflicts, it is often the cities they will flee to. The cities try to accommodate the newcomers and find long-lasting solutions for them. But at the same time those people who eventually want to return home also need to be supported.

What would successful measures look like in poorer countries?

In Kigali, for example, we simplified the bureaucratic process by which developers get building permissions and that stimulated investment. You can often entice investors by setting up the right conditions. What is important is matching those conditions to the needs of the people. And that is how, for instance, you have a positive influence on women’s rights - because women are often particularly impacted by urban poverty. You also have to get local youth involved; the average age in African countries is often very low and young people are important political decision-makers. So these factors must be dealt with on site, by the stakeholders. However to do this you don’t just need financing, you also need good institutional structures and planning.

In wealthy countries, urban planning seems to be implemented a lot faster. In Qatar more than 90 percent of the population live in the country’s capital, Doha, and that city just seems to get more and more modern. Is that a good example for the future?

The situation in Qatar is very specific. The high degree of urbanisation has a lot to do with the small size of the country. Their wealth of resources allows the construction of modern infrastructure and major building development.

And there are still fundamental problems of inequality in developed countries, as housing crises in many major cities show. Additionally we need to solve the problem of sustainability. How should one organise a city to ensure that environmental and atmospheric pollution don’t become problematic? How do you create public spaces that foster a more inclusive society? All these questions are central to the issue – yet even the more prosperous countries don’t necessarily have good answers to them.

Good planning does not only have to do with prosperity – even if it obviously helps – but also with funding for infrastructure and social projects.

So you are saying that cities like Doha and Dubai are not great examples of successful urban management?

It’s just not that easy to generalize. Every country and every city is different. Of course one can identify positive factors leading to positive urbanisation. Let’s take the example of Saudi Arabia: It is only very recently that the Saudi authorities came to UN-HABITAT and asked for help with urban planning and housing construction. We’re working with the government there on something called a City Prosperity Index, which measures productivity, infrastructure, quality of living, inclusion and sustainability as well as institutional structures and the legal situation. That is how you can measure progress in city planning. Because strong urban growth doesn’t always equal progress. The process needs to be well managed.

So urbanisation is not positive by nature?

Cities are engines for prosperity. There is hardly a more efficient habitat than a modern city. But urbanisation also always result in winners and losers. It is important to take care of the losers. Without good planning, the new city centres will quickly become places of segregation. And if growth is uncontrolled, then often it is hard to build the necessary structures retrospectively.

The many positive impacts of a public space – on things like quality of life and transport as well as security and cultural diversity - are often underestimated. If one doesn’t explicitly establish a well-planned public space, that is open to all-comers, then it can be overcome by that growth. It’s here that local, national and global institutions need to take responsibility. Organisations like UN-HABITAT can help countries manage urbanization and profit from the positive experiences of others.  In the end, we need to find tailor-made solutions for every single case.

In that regard, which cities do you see as good examples then?

If I had to choose just two examples, they would be Berlin and Singapore. In Berlin, the city appears to have succeeded in making an old and fast-growing city into one that is globally attractive, while at the same time preserving the city’s spirit. And Singapore is a prime example of how clever city planning can combat inequality. By undertaking major public housing developments, the city has managed to provide affordable housing in the smallest space.  In international rankings of quality of living, Singapore is always near the top. But you also need to bear in mind that Singapore has a very high per-capita income and also that it is a city state.

In your opinion, how can these “recipes for success” be translated on the global stage?

One cannot simply repeat these recipes, one for one. In the future, it will be mainly about bringing politicians at different levels, city planners, experts, NGOs, the private sector and citizens closer together, as well as ensuring that there is an international exchange of ideas and experiences around urban planning. The World Urban Forums [organised by UN-HABITAT] already offer a vehicle for that. The next Forum takes place in Abu Dhabi in 2020. 

Additionally the World Urban Campaign [also organised by UN-HABITAT] brings international universities, think tanks and private businesses together with political decision makers, to develop new strategies for sustainable urban development. It will only be in the future, after German city mayors have sat down with city planners from the Central African Republic and politicians from Qatar to exchange data and insights, that we will find new more efficient strategies with potential global impact. In saying that, the right data sets and empirically-proven insights are going to play an important role there, as will coalitions of willing actors. Because it will only be when civil society also gets involved that we will be able to live up to the enormous challenges that urbanisation is bringing.

The interview was conducted by Gundula Haage and Kai Schnier

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