Whither the "supermayor," the private sector?

16 April 2010

By Benjamin Bradlow, SDI secretariat

The Financial Times had an interesting special magazine last week on “the future of cities.” Many of the articles highlighted some of the basic phenomena affecting developing world cities and, in particular, slums. Edwin Heathcote’s article on the growth of “megacities” and so-called “metacities” underlined the importance of social relationships to the new large cities of the Global South:

It is Tijuana’s [Mexico] informal density — the creation of close-knit networks and communities with very limited means — that creates such a severe contrast with its affluent neighbors. And while no one is suggesting that Lagos [Nigeria] or Tijuana are paradigms for the modern city, both create genuine urban activity of a vibrancy and self-sufficiency that seems to elude the west.

Where they collapse is in equality — which represents one of the biggest crises facing the metacity. Studies consistently show that wellbeing is commensurate with a relatively equal society. Yet the emerging megacities — from Mumbai to Sao Paolo — accommodate extreme asymmetries of wealth.

In these conditions, the wealthy begin to fear while the poor become envious. The result is ghettoized cities in which walls and gates become the norm as communities, often in close proximity, vie to exclude each other. These are among the gravest problems facing the metacity. Their size and scale of growth make governance difficult, while exploitation through accommodation becomes endemic.

So if we acknowledge that the lack of capacity to govern cities facing social problems on a unique scale, while at the same time recognize the unique social formations of informal life in the South’s large cities — and their attendant energy and constructive potential — surely the primary emphasis of policy towards slums in these cities should be clear, right? Not so fast.

The magazine focuses on two major solutions to slums in the cities of the South: the private sector and government. Articles about water and sanitation, and housing construction point to the role of the private sector, while Ricky Burdett, a professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has his own prescription:

A powerful mayor — the new city doctor — who has understood his city’s DNA, identified its problems and come up with a “cure” to turn them around. Cities, it turns out, can be healed as long as the diagnosis and the treatment are correct.

Is it a reasonable expectation that every growing city in the South — every city with growing slum populations — should just wait for a miracle to come down from city hall? And should we wait for this when it is an acknowledged fact that cities and slums are growing at a scale for which there is little capacity to deliver a state-focused response to the issues that come along with such growth?

Most crucially, why are we so dependent on the state (or the private sector), when we acknowledge, as Heathcote does, that the real energy and productive potential of our cities come from the social relationships of the people who live there?

One of SDI’s fundamental propositions, through the actions of all of its associated community-based federations is that the social power of communities organized around their own resources is the greatest tool for development in the cities of the South. These are the activities documented from the 33 different countries where we have affiliates. These are not isolated cases in Bogota, New Delhi, or Copenhagen, where a mayor managed to implement an innovative project, or a private entrepreneur implemented a successful sanitation venture in one slum.

As a network of learning and exchange, SDI builds the capacity of slum dwellers to deliver solutions to their own problems at scale. The learning does not take place in books and published toolkits, but “learning by doing.” Poor people travel and learn from each other where they live. They bring these solutions back to their own communities. They travel some more, sharing new experiences. The wheel of learning, development, and social cohesion continues to move forward.

The public discourse around “the future of cities” has a long way to go if we are continuing to rely on silver bullets that come from above — whether they be “supermayors” or private sector innovations — to solve the problems of people on the ground. SDI federations engage the state and private sector actors because they know that all parties have a role to play. Resources and political will are indispensable to any kind of developmental initiative. But the people affected by development have not only the biggest stake in any project’s success, but also the greatest potential in participating in its conception and implementation. The activities of SDI-affiliated federations chronicled here on this blog are just a small sample of the ways that organized communities of the urban poor are building the most sustainable, scale-able means of growth for “healing” the cities of the South.