Cities have felt the greatest impact of COVID-19, with 90 per cent of the infections reported in urban areas. Some of the major impacts are: 

  • Increased need for Integrated governance strategies to improve resilience to shocks.
  • Public infrastructure and services are inaccessible, highlighting the need for digitalisation of city operations in response to a crisis, although in 2020,  759  million homes around the world lacked internet.
  • An upsurge of digital payments and 77 per cent year-on-year growth in e-commerce during 2020, affecting local economies. 
  • The lockdowns forced more people into the informal sector, lacking social safety nets.
  • The number of unemployed went up immediately, and the skills gap was revealed.
  • A rise in social inequalities and racial tension due to remote working, as well as an increase in security risks. 

The pandemic has severely damaged global prosperity and was expected to push around 88 million new people into extreme poverty in 2020. As a result of outdated urban planning policies, poor people faced unequal exposure to risks caused by flooding, violence, and mobility restrictions. Moreover, social segregation in cities went even further; minorities are set apart in cities, and there is a need for greater equality in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation and disability.

Historical disruptions have shaped cities worldwide and the current pandemic will do the same. Cities have been able to reimagine themselves for the better and achieve progress after each catastrophe. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake led to the birth of earthquake engineering. The cholera outbreak in London triggered the first public health policy on urban sanitation in 1848. The damage done by World War II reinforced the idea of a just and democratic model city for all its inhabitants, as a result of which, governments initiated massive housing and rebuilding programmes in devastated cities, with high-rise structures separated by green spaces. COVID-19 will be no different and will trigger a fightback for resilience, owing to the increase in unemployment and poverty, which damaged the global economy and our ‘normal’ ways of living. 

It creates an urgency for change to create a green, digital and inclusive society. Seeing a moment of opportunity, institutions such as the World Economic Forum have proposed a Great Reset of capitalism whereas international organisations and policymakers are advocating for a ‘green-focused’ recovery, including integrated governance and inclusive planning.

Inclusive services and planning

The World Bank has identified three building blocks for future cities: 

  1. Spatial inclusion (providing affordable housing, water, and sanitation), 
  2. Social inclusion (equal rights and participation), 
  3. Economic inclusion (job creation and economic development chances for citizens)

One of the objectives in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals endorses inclusion initiatives: “By 2030, ensure universal access to green and public places that are secure, inclusive, and accessible, particularly for women and children, the elderly, and people with disabilities.” Keeping these in mind, inclusive services and planning should be an important pillar in building future cities.

Inclusive design could involve the construction of gender-inclusive urban centres to provide safe spaces for caregivers and the installation of wheelchair-accessible devices for persons with disabilities. It may imply creating greener and safer neighbourhoods for all residents and investing in happy and safe spaces for kids to play. It would include accessible locations for the elderly, making cities more appealing to the silver generation. It can further combat gentrification by providing an inclusive social care system that integrates migrants and provides them with customised services that suit their unique needs and circumstances and same opportunities as others.

Technology and mass participation are necessary for accelerating the trend toward social inclusion. Governments may use digitalisation to improve access to a variety of services, accelerate business prospects, analyse societal gaps, educate big audiences, collect real-time data, promote data-driven decision-making, enable predictive and proactive governance, and engage a broader audience in social engagement. It also relieves the government’s ability to steer scarce administrative and case management resources to those in most need.

Mass participation is the second catalyst for inclusion. Cities have traditionally been planned by mostly male architects from formal backgrounds since the Renaissance. Bringing diversity to the creative process is a critical measure to avoid inequalities and create inclusive and equity-centred cities by design. 

How to ensure the successful creation of an inclusive city?

  • Implement proactive multi-sector solutions, both preventative and curative.
  • Promote an integrated planning approach instead of a fragmented one.
  • Follow an equity-centred design approach.
  • Improve technology solutions – adoption and digital skills, supported by adjusted regulation.
  • Pursue data equity.
  • Establish inclusive living labs for city planners
  • Use agile methods to respond rapidly and anticipate citizens’ needs

The benefits of social inclusion for cities and citizens

  1. Enhances livability and cohesion: Inclusive cities eliminate spatial fragmentation, embrace mixed development, respect differences, and create an infrastructure that ensures everyone can thrive. It is the foundation of a dynamic, secure and innovative city, taking advantage of the agglomeration and diversity.
  2. Competitiveness and productivity in cities increase: There is more interaction between stakeholders in a more inclusive and well-integrated city, which increases productivity and economic growth across all communities. There is a positive correlation between inclusion and economic health in US cities                                                                                                     

    Source: Urban Institute, Measuring inclusion in America’s cities,2018

  3. Resilience is enhanced: Cities that develop connected and inclusive physical and digital infrastructure are capable of providing residents with access to a wider range of shared services and accelerating prosperity.  This expands knowledge sharing and promotes collaboration across the entire population, which builds a more resilient society.

Cities that practice inclusive planning 

Medellín, Colombia

Two decades ago, Medellin’s homicide rate was notorious, as were its economic inequality and social exclusion; in 2012, over 6,000 people were killed. With integrated planning efforts to improve connectivity, education, and public facilities, the city started to transform into an inclusive urban community focused on the poor. Initiatives such as Medellín Metrocable, the world’s first cable car system for public transport, connected the city’s poor neighbourhoods with the city centre, subways and bus networks. Schools and libraries were built near cable car stations for accessibility. More recently, programmes such as free internet access zones and social co-creation practices have made Medellin a smart city. 

Quito, Ecuador

Sexual harassment on public transport was increasing at an alarming rate in Quito. In 2014, 81 per cent of women travellers reported being a victim of sexual violence in public. A campaign to fight sexual harassment was launched in 2017 as a social inclusion initiative- Bájale al Acoso, which provides an instant reporting system via SMS text messages for public transport bus systems. The result of the program is that in the first two years of implementation, 2800 cases of sexual harassment were reported, resulting in 73 prosecutions. Later on, other cities replicated this method. 

Nagareyama, Japan

Across all of Japan, ageing populations and low birth rates are a problem. Nagareyama has strived to be the best place in Japan to raise children. One programme, under the slogan “Think Motherhood, Think Nagareyama”, targeted women as the individuals most likely to find a livable city appealing. With an eye on the needs of women, the city revamped public transportation to include a child drop-off and pick-up point at daycare centres to ease the daily burden of mothers in the metropolitan area. Additionally, the strategy facilitates the creation of entrepreneurship programs for mothers and coworking spaces to balance work and personal life. Nagareyama is now seen as the forest city closest to Tokyo because of its improved green spaces. From 1.16 children per family in 2007 to 1.53 children per family in 2017, the population of the city has recovered. 

Taking lessons from these cities and understanding the relevance of inclusive planning, it can be said that if a city is livable, sustainable, resilient, and competitive but not inclusive, something is fundamentally wrong. Inclusion is not a feel-good thing. It is the right thing to do; it is crucial to the economic survival of cities.


The above article is based on: Urban future with a purpose report/Deloitte 

Feature Image credits: John A Xinos

Nithya Arumugam

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