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Is there a future for poor people in the city?

URBANIZATION / Moving from the countryside to the city has lifted many people out of poverty, particularly in developing countries. The city provides better access to work, services and freedom from inhibiting social norms. At the same time, life for the city's poor can be difficult.


While global estimates from the UN show that the majority of the poor still live in rural areas, the problems and challenges in cities, especially those with rapid population growth, can be significant. Most of the poor here live in informal settlements and slums, often overcrowded housing of poor quality. At the same time, they have limited access to basic services and pay high prices for the few that they do have access to. It is estimated that one billion people today live in informal settlements, and that number is expected to increase to more than 3 billion before 2050. Natural risks such as floods and environmental pollution can exacerbate the challenges of the poor. Many urban poor work in the informal sector without job security or social protection. Such conditions can lead to increasing inequality and create social divisions in society. This is particularly acute in cities where the concentration of people is high. If not tackled, rising inequality can hamper growth, living conditions and lead to problems such as social unrest.

The majority of the poor still live in rural areas.

The challenges are linked to rapid urbanisation, inefficient land use and a lack of urban planning. As well as unfair policies and resource limitations. Many cities have not been able to keep up with the demand for housing and services. This means that the poor have few opportunities to acquire safe housing near their workplaces. Instead, they must consider whether they want to live in vulnerable places, such as dilapidated areas in the city centre, on low-lying flood plains or hard-to-reach places of residence. That is, on the outskirts of the city, on hillsides, near rubbish dumps or other high-risk areas. Such places are often far from public transport, which makes it difficult to access jobs and services. It further worsens poverty.

While the characteristics of urban poverty have not changed significantly in recent decades, the effects of climate change, growing inequality and covid-19 have created new challenges. covid-19 hit urban populations particularly hard as jobs were lost during closures. Research shows that many of the "new" poor are located in urban areas. For poor who live in the slums, the effects of covid-19 were exacerbated by the difficulties arising from social distancing, lack of services and safety nets.

A holistic perspective

Many decades of work with urban poverty issues have taught us which conditions are important for political approaches and project investments. A holistic perspective on economic, spatial and social inclusion in cities will be able to address the multiple deprivations that the urban poor face and which are mutually reinforcing. We know that most cities will continue to grow and can have great potential for poverty reduction, if planned and managed well. This means that we must prioritize urban development that promotes effective and fair measures for inclusion, job creation and survival. Among such priorities can be mentioned:

To invest in integrated urban planning to reduce inequalities in access to facilities and opportunities.

Linking workplaces, markets, public transport, health and education services, recreational areas and affordable housing together through spatial planning to influence growth patterns. In rapidly growing cities, investments in green areas by facilitating infrastructure services and strengthening people's rights can contribute to increased demand for housing. This creates an alternative to informal settlements. Promoting sustainable and robust approaches can help mitigate future climate impacts. 

To ensure reasonable plots of land and housing for citizens, including the poor, promotes inclusion and viable communities.

In some cities, this can be achieved by protecting people's property rights and addressing the causes of high land prices. Important factors are the minimum size of plots, the maximum number of storeys and the revision of zoning plans. Programs and guidelines that promote land registration, property rights and the allocation of deeds can also improve security and increase market value. Reforming outdated, restrictive laws and regulations can open the way for more people to gain access to land. Public schemes that offer housing at an affordable price exist in several countries based on different models. Including target group targeted loan assistance, access to funding for gradual development, subsidized rent and long-term leases which over time can give people the opportunity to build equity.

In runiform access to infrastructure and basic services through investments in clean water, sanitation and waste collection has a huge impact on health and productivity.

As cities grow, affordable transport gives low-income groups access to work and income as well as social services such as schools, clinics and hospitals. It can also reduce disparities between the districts.

Target group-oriented loan assistance, access to financing for gradual development, rent subsidies and long-term lease agreements.

Neighborhood upgrading through integrated programs involving a wide range of services will be of great importance to the residents and, not least, promote economic, social and spatial inclusion. Experiences from countries such as Brazil and Indonesia show how such investments can be scaled up from neighborhood to national level.

Recognizing all citizens' rights to the city is essential to building of inclusive screw.

Regardless of identity, gender, income or place of birth, equal access to services and the purchase of property will promote justice and social cohesion. It will also help to remove restrictions that force marginalized groups into poverty. Those who cannot participate in the labor market need targeted safety nets to meet their needs. Own measures for the elderly, disabled, displaced population groups and women with low incomes – will be able to reduce their vulnerability.

Finally: to strengthen et local governance and use citizensnes interest in open and fair decisions, including the participation of the poor, is important to stimulate distribution policyen, improve service deliveryen and ensure social stability.

Rapid urbanisation, inefficient land use and lack of urban planning.

Giving city dwellers the opportunity to get involved and contribute to development is crucial to promoting social inclusion. Many development programs now use participatory methods to identify priorities in the local community, improve relations with local authorities and plan and implement measures. Such opportunities are particularly important for the urban poor, who often have neither the opportunity to vote nor to be elected.

All such priorities depend on the commitment of central authorities to implement a fair policy that ensures that the urban poor can participate. The last few years of climate change, a global pandemic and increasing social unrest show that it is crucial to act now.

Two examples

I Brazil invested in the programs "Accelerated growth for slums" (2007-2018) and "My home – my life" (2009-2018) on infrastructure and reducing the housing shortage. Positive results were achieved throughout the country, also with regard to creating employment. However, a political system change and high costs led to a halt in the programme.

In Indonesia, in 2016 the government launched the collaboration platform "The National Slum Upgrading Project" (NSUP), popularly also known as KOTAKU. It is based on the experiences from several similar projects. Fresh capital has been made available for what has developed into a broad program effort. Here, the emphasis is on sustainability (resilience), as well as important measures where low-income
areas are linked with developed districts. With the scale-up comes testing of new measures with careful monitoring and evaluation of results to improve adaptation to local needs.

Judy baker
Judy Baker
Baker is Global Lead at the World Bank.

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