The Right to the City: “It is critical to urbanise informal settlements”

Interview with Matthias Nohn

In modern-day cities, issues such as affordable and good housing, or the question of who designs neighborhoods are very relevant and often imply a conflict of interests. URBANET talked to Rapid Urbanism Executive Director Matthias Nohn about the challenges and chances that cities face, and about what really constitutes the “Right to the City”.

Mr Nohn, the “Right to the city” was first brought up as an issue by sociologist Henri Lefebvre, who criticized the large-scale housing projects in post-war Europe. What does the phrase mean today?
In the current Habitat III debate, the right to the city is often advocated for; however, the term itself is complicated, not only as actors may understand it differently, but also as it does not imply concrete targets, measures and actions.

For example, the left traditionally asks for social housing of a relatively high standard to be provided to all citizens. This is however difficult under rapid urbanization: capital-intensive goods, such as housing, are not affordable to the poor, thus implying large subsidies, albeit governments cannot afford the magnitude required during rapid urbanization either.

On the contrary, liberals ask for housing solutions that are affordable without market intervention. However, this approach typically fails to provide not only for the poorest but also for middle-income households, as market failures in land and housing markets are real: for example, the lack of tenure security may constrain access to affordable credit; or the lack of water and sanitation in slums has adverse impacts on formal neighborhoods.

In many societies, the market effectively provides only for the best earning households: for example, in Vietnam and Indonesia, where I work for the World Bank, only the top 10 to 20 percent of households are able to purchase the cheapest housing unit offered by large-scale developers. IADB has documented similar results for Latin American cities, and the trend also holds true for most African societies.

What are the challenges that cities face, particularly in regards to the fact that the urban population is bigger than ever and affordable housing is scarce?

Three sets of challenges exist – the first two are area-based, the last one is vector-based: firstly, coping with the current backlog; secondly, addressing population growth; and, thirdly, interlinking both the existing and new neighborhoods and ensuring network access and connectivity, inter alia through low-carbon transport systems.

Firstly, in regard to coping with the current backlog, it is critical to urbanize informal settlements, particularly by enabling access to basic infrastructure and services, improving tenure security and enabling home improvements. Since Habitat II, many initiatives have been developed, responding to the needs of slum/shack dwellers. Initiatives that were able to capture a share of the land value increases that arise from improvements in tenure security and service provision have been the most successful, such as land sharing in Bangkok. At the same time, also middle-income households suffer from housing deprivations, particularly overcrowding. If ignored, they may capture benefits provided to the poor through government support, for example gentrifying upgraded slums. Thus, we need programs that support both the poor and middle-income households, while remaining affordable to governments at the required scale still.

On addressing urban population growth, strategic investments anticipating the need for serviced land is required, either through densification and city infills or through planned city extensions. If urban growth rates are moderate to low, the focus may be on densification in order to promote an environmentally sustainable form. However, promoting tight growth boundaries during rapid urbanization likely has adverse effects: it imposes significant social costs, as the artificially constrained land supply leads to higher (even less affordable) market prices, increasing the need for informal urbanisation and thus the creation of new slums.

Therefore, most of Africa and Asia, the fastest urbanising world regions, face the primary challenge of how to plan for and finance the expansion of the urban footprint in an environmentally and socially just way. If done properly, then the increase in supply will not only bring down prices overall, but new neighborhoods will also promote a mix of land uses, social groups and building types that synergistically interact with each other, fostering social inclusion and environmental sustainability.

Lastly, with few exceptions, all cities face the challenge of building more infrastructure in order to improve intra-urban linkages. For example, mass transit is critical, as it has a significant impact on land markets and environmental sustainability: central land prices are highest in the most congested cities, as costly commutes warrant a premium for central locations. Thus, investments in mass public transport aid in reducing central land prices, by serving as a surrogate measure for land supply, and in reducing environmental pollution. Similarly, sanitation systems are of strategic relevance to urban health and environmental protection.

How can urban poor communities have a “right to the city”? How can they participate in, for example, land management and planning processes?
In my view it is the city’s responsibilities to enable access to, albeit not provide housing. The right to the city is more about the right to equal opportunities, rather than about the absolute right to a final good.

Based on this Rawlsian interpretation, there are many things that the government can effectively do at the required scale: for example, in regard to land management, community groups (i.e. ACHR, ACCA, CODI, SEWA, SDI) have shown that enumeration and mapping of informal settlements can be a powerful tool for mobilising inclusive city-wide policies. The same techniques can be applied to other areas: for example, WIEGO has mapped natural street markets in Indian cities to demonstrate their existence and to reduce the threat of eviction.

Lastly, referring back to my earlier made point that governments should enable citizens and markets to address pressing needs, communities can also participate through incremental development. In this regard, community action planning is a technique that assesses preferences for development interventions and then develops proposals to realise priority projects with and through communities. For example, Sri Lanka’s Million Housing Program has developed sites and service projects using this approach successfully: a starter environment provided tenure security and access to basic infrastructure, then the people developed the community and the houses as per their own needs, preferences and available resources over time. Thus, an adequate starter can also be understood as a means for participation.

What can be done by local governments to enhance the awareness that citizens are actually a part of shaping the way their city or neighborhood looks?
I think the best way of doing this is to lead by example. If cities engage in participatory techniques, such as the ones that we just discussed, and if they are willing to really share powers, instead of just pursuing token participation, then this will not only change the way how cities are governed but also raise the awareness respectively for the role that citizens can have in creating impact.

What can the New Urban Agenda do to improve the citizens’ right to the city?
In my view, the right to the city needs to be enabled through a smart middle path, addressing severe poverty and critical market failures that constitute binding constraints to social and economic development and to improved environmental sustainability (cf. SDGs) – while moderating exaggerated expectations in order to be affordable to both households and governments so that solutions are eventually scalable.

This affordable middle path necessarily contrasts ‘outstanding’ but expensive pilot projects that produce beautiful images but benefit a privileged minority and, as such, sustain exaggerated expectations and thus rather constitute a problem than a potential solution. In the spirit of JFC Turner’s Freedom to Build, the middle path needs to empower the people to build the cities that they need, rather than provide the final product. In this regard, sites and service projects – mass housing supply programs in the 1970s and 1980s that, despite some problems, eventually turned out to be highly successful – should be reconsidered as a strategic response to repaid urbanization.

At the same time, there will be a need for modern urban management instruments such as land value capture and housing microfinance to mobilize the domestic resources that are required for more inclusive and more sustainable urbanization at the required speed and scale. These tools are critical as the mid-1990s policy shift from housing supply to housing demand has led to unsustainable urbanization processes. For example, large-scale programs providing subsidies to home buyers, but not supporting the supply side, have fueled urban sprawl and produced many peripheral homes that remained vacant and led to macroeconomic crises, for example in Mexico.
In summary, the New Urban Agenda should promote institutions that promote an inclusive and sustainable environment while meeting the people’s needs and mobilizing domestic resources. Rapid Urbanism balances these four dimensions – supply and demand, finance and governance. Applying the principle of subsidiarity, communities can then play a critical role in shaping these enabling environments incrementally in order to fulfill their rights.

Matthias Nohn

Executive Director at Rapid Urbanism
Matt Nohn is an urban economist and development planner with over 15 years of professional experience in more than 20 countries, including assignments with GIZ, The World Bank, UN-Habitat, the Gates Foundation and multiple universities, think tanks and grass-roots movements. His work addresses the land, housing, transportation and employment conundrum with focus on domestic resource mobilization and incremental, labor-intensive development. A Loeb Fellow at Harvard Graduate School of Design, he holds a Master of Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School and a Dipl.-Ing. Architecture and Urban Planning from TU Darmstadt and is the promoter of Rapid Urbanism: a progressive school of thought for designing policy responses to rapid urbanization challenges.
Matthias Nohn
Older Posts