Stories of inequitable development are common in urbanization processes across Asia. Urban transformation often neglects the needs and rights of poor and vulnerable groups as economic development and private sector interests are prioritized over social justice.
Disaster risk and exclusionary urban development: the case of Metro Manila
To date, around 40 percent of Metro Manila’s waterways have been filled to make way for roads, housing and shopping malls. More concrete means less room for water, which worsens the risk of flooding particularly as climate extremes bring more torrential downpours and tropical storms.
Officials often blame Manila’s informal settlements for clogging drainage networks. Yet, media and politicians stay silent about high-end developments which take up far more space and have much higher energy and resource demands compared to dense low-income housing,
In 2012, the government responded to the escalating flood risk in the country’s capital with the launch of a Flood Management Master Plan which aimed to construct dams, dikes, dredge canals, widen waterways and rehabilitate and expand drainage infrastructure.
To make way for these measures, around 100,000 households were targeted for relocation. Yet, uneven enforcement meant that wealthier residents remained in place while poor informal communities were displaced or relocated, often to peripheral areas or surrounding provinces due to high land costs in Metro Manila. These already vulnerable urban communities were further separated from critical livelihood opportunities and social support systems.
Women are at greater risk from impacts of urban displacement and resettlement due to their varying mobility needs. As transport planning is often gender-blind and aligns with male work patterns in many developing countries; i.e. to and from urban centers during rush hour periods; it overlooks the transportation needs of many women who have been relocated farther away from places such as markets and schools. Women also face increased safety concerns on crowded or poorly lit transportation when traveling late at night.
“Bourgeois environmentalism”: The case of the Guwahati hills, India
A similar case comes from the city of Guwahati in India, where around 30 percent of the urban population live in informal settlements on the hills to avoid the high rental costs of the urban core. The hills are subject to frequent flooding and landslides which puts these communities at risk.
Some modelling studies predicted that at current rates of settlement on the hills which is an important watershed for the area, there would be a 20 percent increase in peak runoff, creating an increased risk of landslides and flash floods.
Closely mirroring the case of Metro Manila, the marginalised hill dwellers were blamed for environmental damage, and environmental groups formed by the urban wealthy and middle-class demanded protection for the hills, terming the settlements as “encroachers”. These campaigns led to state-led eviction drives. Yet, the wealthy estates which also settled on the same hills escaped any blame.
Such processes have been termed by sociologists as “bourgeois environmentalism”. This refers to the contradictory logic of the increasingly affluent and consumerist lifestyle of the wealthy and middle-class which results in environmental degradation on the one hand, yet also champions conservation and greening initiatives such as protected parks and urban beautification movements on the other.
Rights to the city and risk-informed urban planning
The seminal urbanist Henri Lefebvre first advanced the idea of the “right to the city” which holds that all urban dwellers should be able to play a central role in any decision that contributes to the production of urban space, and to physically access, occupy and use urban space according to their needs.
More recently, these principles have been adopted by UN Habitat’s New Urban Agenda which calls for all inhabitants of cities, without discrimination of any kind, to be able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements, to foster prosperity and quality of life for all.
The examples of Metro Manila and Guwahati show how environmental and disaster reduction agendas can become exclusionary and entail the further marginalization of groups that are already the most vulnerable.
Alongside this, we see the increasing dominance of the private sector as a driver of urban development and the growth of enclaves for the rich such as gated parks which provide environmental amenities only to those who can afford to pay.
Incorporating disaster risk reduction into urban land-use planning does not automatically resolve the vulnerability experienced mostly by poorer and disadvantaged segments of society. In fact, it might even produce new forms of vulnerability and inequality because risk reduction and adaptation measures are often selectively applied to benefit powerful groups and important assets at the expense of the historically poor and marginalised.
Reconceptualising urban development through a lens of inclusion can help:
- Refocusing the objectives of urban development to enhance equitable access and usage of urban space in line with the Rights to the City
- Combatting inequalities and segregation in towns and cities by prioritizing affordable housing and access to services
- As part of risk-informed urban planning, prioritizing relocation in-situ when resettlement is unavoidable
- Ensuring the incorporation of gender analysis within risk-informed planning to understand and address differentiated needs
- Allocating a stronger role for the state as a duty bearer for creating inclusive and democratic urban development processes and regulating the activities of the private sector.
The adaptation challenge faced by cities in the context of mounting climate pressures and rapid urbanization is profound. Yet, it is critical to question who cities are being designed for. A rights-based urban planning approach will help to ensure that equity, justice and concern for the needs of the most vulnerable are placed front and center.
This perspective was informed by research under the Building resilience through inclusive and climate-adaptive disaster risk reduction (BRDR) programme, led by SEI Asia in partnership with the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, which explored gender equality and rights-based approached in risk-sensitive urban land-use planning.