Strength in Numbers: Charting a Course Towards Equitable Cities

by James Tayler


By Noah Schermbrucker, SDI Secretariat

On the Easter weekend I was one of 16000 people who braved the freezing rain to run the Two Oceans Half Marathon in Cape Town.  What, you may ask; does running a long distance race have to do with Slum Dwellers International? On reflection there are a number of important comparisons that can be made between the SDI rituals and the running of a long distance race.

 Of paramount importance to most runners is time; not just how long it takes to complete the race but also how one needs to maintain a steady pace throughout. In SDI time is also key. It takes time to build community solidarity and cohesion, it takes time for this social movement to have the capacity to engage with the state and it takes time to change the attitudes of urban planners, professionals and officials with regards to the poor. There are no instantaneous solutions or technological “quick fixes” to urban poverty and improving institutional conditions, like building houses, is done incrementally. Once communities are mobilized they can keep up a “steady pace” by saving small amounts daily, learning about and mapping their areas and becoming active participants in the decisions that affect their lives.

 Surrounded by thousands of runners I began to think about space and movement, about the rhythm and flow of people moving through the urban environment. How do the urban poor experience and negotiate space, how do they move through the city and the slums in which they live? For the poor space is often an impediment to securing services and resources that are housed a great distance away. Part of the challenge of creating inclusive cities is creating inclusive spaces and linking these spaces together to form a network that connects cities through transport, economic and housing opportunities and resource flows. An inclusive city is a city that is spatially interlinked and interdependent across class barriers, a city that draws the poor into its flows and processes rather than expelling them to the periphery both figuratively and physically.

  Should we not also marvel at how the poorest of the poor manage, against all odds, to carve a niche within an often-hostile environment, maximizing the efficiency of the tiny, cramped spaces that they cling to?  The poor have defined space differently to our conventional assumptions about how the city should be molded. Commercial endeavors flow out of living rooms and shops double as bedrooms as the lines between spaces that are conventionally separated by the dictates of planning laws are blurred and continuously reconfigured. SDI does not see this as “illegal” or a problem but as an opportunity to create cross-subsidized housing models based on the combined commercial and private usage of space. New and imaginative conceptions of space are needed to make use of the limited resources available in rapidly urbanizing cities.

 I would argue that space is predominantly defined by the State and the market-zoning, building and property laws regulate who can build what and where –in essence who has a “legal” right to space and who doesn’t.  The poor are described as “illegal” or “informal” since their houses often do not adhere to these laws and standards. The states role should be to create a legal and institutional framework (in law and procedure) that imagines space differently. SDI processes challenge conventional perceptions of space-the call for inclusive cities being, in essence, a call for inclusive urban spaces. If space is historical, legal, political and personal then the state has the power to change the structural frameworks that define urban spaces to become progressively pro poor. SDI works towards this goal, setting precedents, negotiating with local authorities and attempting to change policies and development practices-creating inclusive spaces.

 Returning to the race I was astounded at the feeling of being amongst a crowd of thousands of people all moving at different speeds in the same direction. This resonated with the idea of a global network of the urban poor based on co-operative learning who concurrently face similar challenges and have stated common goals.  Power and strength is found in numbers especially when facing the endemic challenges of global urban poverty and exclusion. The strength of the SDI network is manifold; key lessons, support, learning exchanges, technical assistance and the sheer numbers of urban slum dwellers.  The power of a network of the urban poor all “running” towards the same goals should never be underestimated especially when the poor themselves have the power to define the course that they chart. The SDI process, takes time and has a sustained rhythm that pounds like a thousand feet on tarmac, always moving forward, negotiating uphills and downhills, working towards small milestones and an eventual “finish line”-equitable and inclusive cities for the urban poor.