5 ways to build more inclusive cities

September 13, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Nicola Nixon (right) and Tamara Failor (centre) from The Asia Foundation and Rebecca Calder (left), from Kore Global, introduce some ideas for making cities more inclusive in Southeast Asia.

In the shadow of Covid-19, rapid urbanization is exacerbating existing inequalities and creating new ones that dramatically reduce the quality of life of people who are marginalized. 

Three examples:

  • Persons with disabilities face multiple barriers in navigating poorly designed infrastructure, burdensome travel times to access the basic services they need, and limited options for decent employment, even when they can overcome the discriminatory social norms that devalue their presence and participation in public spaces.
  • Recent campaigns to address women’s safety on public transport in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere are just a small part of the solution to the levels of sexual harassment and intimidation perpetrated by men on women, girls and those of minority genders in cities throughout the region.
  • The urban poor, including informal workers, ethnic minorities, and a rising number of migrants, frequently find themselves in settlements that are physically excluded from the opportunities and services of urban centres.

When people do think and advocate on these issues, they are often physically and intellectually worlds away from the decisionmakers in the offices of municipal authorities and their public and private sector counterparts, whose views are often most powerful in shaping the future city.

Over the past six months, The Asia Foundation has contributed to bridging that gap by hosting a series of carefully facilitated discussions – the Inclusive Cities Dialogues. An initiative of the ASEAN Australia Smart Cities Trust Fund – a collaboration between the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Asian Development Bank and the Ramboll Group – the Dialogues have been led by a diverse group of local government and non-government representatives from across 14 of Southeast Asia’s secondary cities, from Pakse, Laos (pop. 88,000) and Battambang, Cambodia (pop. 118,000) to Makassar, Indonesia (pop. 1.5 million).

Over nine sessions, 120 participants from those cities set about unpacking the problems faced by marginalized and excluded groups. Participants joined from across the urban ecosystem: national and municipal government officials responsible for urban planning; service delivery ministries and agencies; persons with disabilities; members of women’s groups; representatives of the urban poor; academic specialists; tech start-up founders; and a diverse group of civil society organizations, including women’s groups and other representative organisations, all based in partner cities.

What we learned

There is energy for more inclusive change. Despite resource and capacity challenges, there are reform champions in municipal authorities – Mohammad Ramdhan Pomanto, Mayor of Makassar, Indonesia, for instance, and Benjamin Magalong, Mayor of Baguio, Philippines – who want to do more to address inequities in their cities. Despite closing civic spaces in many parts of the region, civil society organizations are implementing creative initiatives to provide employment opportunities, address public safety issues and contribute to urban infrastructure planning. In several cities government and non-government actors are working together productively, whether on policies, budget allocations or pilot programs. We heard examples of universities providing data for local planning in Semarang; civil society working with government in Phnom Penh on better data collection; and greater cross-sectoral collaboration to reduce gender-based violence in Penang. This reform momentum is an opportunity.

Prejudicial norms and values are the number one barrier. Participants in the dialogues were of one voice on this point: concrete barriers are significant, whether transport, financial or otherwise. Yet when addressing these barriers, transformational impact will only be achieved if negative attitudes, norms and values– towards women and gender minorities, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized groups such as migrants and the urban poor –also change. For instance, Indonesian transgender activist Merlyn Sopjan, walked us through a multi-pronged approach to working with individuals, families and local communities to strengthen acceptance of transgender individuals and to securing their legal identity.

There are significant gaps between words and deeds. In some cities, policy frameworks now exist that encourage mainstreaming of inclusion as well as dedicated efforts to support and empower specific groups. Government representatives shared the difficulties they face improving access to infrastructure and public transport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and to basic services in Semarang, Indonesia, even where an overarching vision of an inclusive city exists. Resources for implementation are limited and much on-the-ground programming still depends on NGO projects. While these are of great value individually, the bigger picture is one of fragmentation, lack of coordination and missed opportunities to share knowledge and replicate good practices.

Manila Bay Shanties. Credit: Adam Cohn, Flickr

There are few comprehensive or intersectional approaches to inclusion. Most efforts to improve access and opportunities in urban areas tend to focus on specific identity groups, leaving little opportunity for collective voice on inclusion more broadly, or awareness of compounded disadvantage among planners, policy makers, and respective interest groups. Siloed thinking around social exclusion tends to make it harder to address. While poverty is a barrier to some, disability a barrier for others, and gender discrimination a barrier for yet others, inclusive approaches will be strengthened and responses made more effective when overlapping disadvantages are addressed. For example, in her presentation, Dr. Indra Kertati, Director, Institute for Study and Development of Resources (Semarang, Indonesia) explained that rates of child marriage have increased in parts of Indonesia during Covid-19. The intersection of age, poverty and gender make adolescent girls from low-income houses particularly vulnerable.

When the dominant paradigm for urban development in Southeast Asia is ‘smart’ cities and ‘smart’ is conflated with high-tech and the seduction of digital solutions, these very personal and complex aspects of city life tend to get lost. In hosting these dialogues, we have created space for voices to be heard that are often not part of the urban plan. This, we hope, is just the start of an important conversation.

To learn more about the Inclusive Cities Dialogues, a final online event is planned for October 2022, please follow the ASEAN Australia Smart Cities Trust Fund (AASCTF) on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook. Registration details will be announced shortly.