Formalising the Informal: William Cobbett Address to the World Planning Schools Congress 2011

 
“Formalising the Informal”
 
Address by William Cobbett, Cities Alliance Programme Manager, to the World Planning Schools Congress, Perth, Australia, 4 July 2011
 
 
Good morning. I start by telling you that I am not a planner, so what you will hear from me comes from a strange career of policy engagement.
 
First, I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to present here. I am very happy to take up this challenge because of the importance of this topic, particularly of this audience and the various planning schools that you represent. As you will hear, we are very keen to engage with the planning profession.
 
If I could just take once sentence to tell you about the Cities Alliance. It is ten years old, it is a global partnership headquartered at the offices of the World Bank in Washington, DC. There are actually four members represented here in the audience: Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), UN-HABITAT, the World Bank colleagues tomorrow, and the Commonwealth of Australia. I’ll be going to Canberra tomorrow to meet with AusAID at the end of this week.
 
The context of my talk is also the context of Cities Alliance’s work, which is the wave of urbanisation that is taking place, largely complete in Latin America and currently underway in most of Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia. That is the context in which I want to address the role of planners.
 
Currently, one third of the world’s population is on the move in the contemporary period. That is a statement easy to make, but impossible to grasp for its enormity and for the management of that transformation. I am not going to focus on the numbers; that is too easy and too dramatic. I am far more interested in what is the impact of this on social transformation and, more critically, on economic transformation. How do we turn this into a successful, sustainable exercise and avoid the dangers of calamity and mismanagement of urbanisation?
 
There is no certainty that urbanisation is going to be the success that we need it to be. The decisions we take now are going to be absolutely critical not just for the next 20 years, but much, much longer than that. I am very hopeful that the policy makers in Africa and Asia will learn from the bad experiences of the urbanisation transformation in Latin America, where the process was not well managed.
 
Ninety per cent of urban growth in the next 30 years will happen in developing countries, and primarily in all of Africa and most of Asia. Quite simply – and this will be the main thesis of my talk – getting urbanisation right, whatever that means, is vital for most global challenges that we face at local, national and regional levels.
 
These include: climate change, population growth, education, the role of women, youth, economic growth, environmental degradation – you name them. Every single one of those topics will be fundamentally addressed, or fail to be addressed, by how we manage urbanisation. The process of urbanisation that is currently underway heralds a social transformation of the scale last seen maybe in Europe in the 19th century, and in the movement of people from the Old World to what is now the United States over the last two centuries.
 
The difference that we face now is first and foremost on the challenge of scale. The numbers are unprecedented. But equally unprecedented is the pace. What took place over two centuries in Europe will take place over 30 and 50 years in Africa and India. There are no textbooks, there are no rulebooks, there is no guide as to how to manage this process.
 
Our main concern – and this is precisely where the work of the Cities Alliance and the work of many of you is located – is most of the policies that govern this urbanisation, or pretend to govern this urbanisation, I would put in summary as wrong or wrongly oriented. Most governments and most policy makers are not focused on urbanisation as a reality, and they are certainly not focused on urbanisation as a positive force for transformation.
 
On the contrary; in the work we do, most governments that we talk to at a city or national level see urbanisation as a problem and something to be managed. This is the debate that I think it is vital that we change.
 
Our starting point, and this is where most policy makers do start, is that three quarters of the world’s poor in the developing world are currently rural dwellers, people in villages living off the land. The incidents of poverty are of course most grave in the rural areas; infant mortality, the condition of women, malnutrition – all of those factors are well known.
 
Where the policy makers’ thinking is missing is that the solution to that rural poverty almost certainly lies in the cities of the world and in the urban areas. This is a thought process with profound policy implications that most policy makers miss. By policy makers I am referring to not only the governments that are overseeing transformations in their own country, but also those governments that are engaged in development assistance. There is a policy dialogue on both sides of the table that is absolutely vital.
 
In the period since 1992 and the 15 or 20 years thereafter, we saw unprecedented reduction in poverty, mainly driven by processes in East Asia. Almost all of that poverty reduction can be attributed to urbanisation and the consequences of urbanisation. That was, in many instances, rural people getting access to improved economic opportunities, but in urban areas.
 
No one need misunderstand my statements as being in favour of urban and therefore not in favour of dealing with rural poverty. They are the same equation. We need to have forces that reduce poverty across both spheres, across the entire country.
 
We believe, though, that getting urbanisation right must mean getting cities right. That is where the challenge comes to the urban profession. The current situation that we face at the moment in Sub-Saharan Africa, in South Asia, in Southeast Asia, is that there are large movements from in-migration from rural areas to the cities. But even today, the bulk of urban growth in terms of population comes from within existing cities. This is a factor not really understood. It is not really large in-migration that is causing the great growth; only of the cities.
 
Existing backlogs of infrastructure, and of course of governance, is where the main focus is and has been up until now. I want to follow up on what Rob was talking about: the future growth. I believe that the single biggest challenge in terms of getting urbanisation right is to project and plan for urbanisation that we know to be certain over the next 30 to 50 years. That is the time horizon that we need national policy makers, city mayors, and urban planners to be focused on right now.
 
Most growth in the developing world of cities is happening in small cities whose names you do not know. In the case of Ethiopia, it is in dozens of small cities, not only in Addis. This is true in Uganda, it is true in East Africa, West Africa, it is true in India. It is small, medium-size cities where the preponderance of this effort and where the infrastructural and governance challenge exists.
 
Because of a multiplicity of reasons, most of this growth is informal. In the view of the mayors that I speak to, they would also regard most of this informality as illegal – not a very useful term when you are dealing with where people live. The response of most local governments has been, and continues to be, not to provide for the needs of the growing populations of the urban poor; not to provide land, not to provide services, and certainly not to provide representation to these populations.
 
The poncy message we try and convey to the same mayors and to the same ministers in these governments is that for every service that is not provided formally, they will be obtained informally. You can call it illegal if you want, but that is the reality of how services will be provided and will be continued to be provided in most cities. So at a price premium people obtain land, water and sanitation; but more worryingly, they maybe also obtain security, they maybe also obtain methods for conflict resolution.
 
What I witnessed in Cape Town when I was the director of housing there for a short period, but have certainly seen in Brazil in the favelas of Rio, is the emergence of a parallel system of service provision and, ultimately, of governance whereby the local authorities are not in control of the city in its entirety because of their failure to recognise those populations and the growth. I do not need to spell out to you the consequences of having alternative systems of governance in the same cities.
 
So for planners, the key to getting our cities right is to transform policies that, at the moment, are dominated by the practice of social exclusion and anti-poor policies. The main challenge in very broad terms is to have a set of practices that consciously and systematically bring people into the city as opposed to pushing them out of the city. This is the opposite of what we see in our work day to day.
 
Bringing people into the city means connecting them spatially, socially, economically and politically to all of the assets of that city and treating them as current and future citizens. Easy to state, and absolutely revolutionary in planning terms compared to what is happening in the cities.
 
If I summarise the current state of play: The failure of urban policy, including planning; the challenge of scale and pace; and of course the challenge of affordability, the affordability not only of the urban poor themselves, but indeed the affordability of the cities into which they are moving. Those resources, in many cases, just are not there. We have looked at the figures and books of some cities in Africa where the availability of infrastructural investment is sometimes as low as three to five dollars per capita in a city. It is very hard to transform a city with those kinds of figures.
 
We also know from the excellent research work that my colleague Solly Angel has done in New York that as the world’s urban population doubles over the next 30 to 40 years in the developing world, the consumption of land will triple. This is a very bleak statement that presents a major challenge to urban preparation today.
 
If the vast majority of urban growth in the countries I am referring to is informal, leave aside the legality question, the point that we would make to the mayor is: That is your reality, and that is your starting point. Start with the facts as they are.
 
Most planning advice that we see being given in these cities is often out of date and is almost certainly after the event. In fact, the single biggest influence on planning today is the urban poor themselves and the facts that they put on the ground. That is what is planning cities – peoples’ movement and what they provide themselves. This is clearly not the most intelligent or sustainable way of planning our future cities.
 
What we say to the mayors, and this is not a popular message: If most of your settlements are informal, if most of your settlements are illegal, make them formal and make them legal. That is your challenge.
 
Leaving aside obviously where life and limb are at risk for poor location, this is not the mentality. The mentality is that people must conform to the rules written 30 years ago as opposed to the rules being rewritten where people are today. That is the change that we need to see in cities throughout what is called the Global South.
 
So for the next 30 years, I would summarise the planning challenge – because it is the same as the policy challenge – systematically, consistently, and coherently formalising the informal; bringing people in metaphorically and literally into those cities and not pushing them out, which is the dominant force.
 
What does this mean for governments and planners? First and foremost, we would like the policy makers to focus on what we know will happen as opposed to what they hope will happen, which governs too much of their policy dialogue at the moment.
 
The role of the urban planners, first and foremost, is to take up and change this debate about the role of planning in small and large cities in the developing world and make the profession felt where it is needed most.
 
Some specific ideas that I would put on, and then I will make some challenges to the profession formally:
 
First, I believe the role of urban planners is to assist in putting some facts on the table. Most mayors we talk to, most city managers we talk to, do not know who is in their city, how many, how poor, where they are and what they are doing.
 
We recently made a grant, which I think will be the first of many, to Slum Dwellers International to work with mayors, in the first instance to African countries, around a process which we will call “Know Your City” where the slum dwellers enumerate and count the slum dwellers and the people living in informal settlements and engage with the city planners and practitioners so that, for the first time, you can start having a debate about the future of the city with some facts about who is in the city.
 
Most mayors are driving blind, they do not know how many people are in their city. So there is a huge role for the planning profession and for the planning students.
 
Second, there is the mentality of bringing people in rather than allowing them to be pushed out. Focusing on expansion rather than containment, which is what dominates most thinking in the planners that we see today.
 
Third is to rethink the standards debate. Most standards, besides being out of date, effectively render the majority of the population illegal because the standards are written in the hope of improving the quality of life in the city. In reality, they do not bear any relationship to the standards that affordability dictate are dominant in that city.
 
The standards adjusted appropriately for the population will allow for improvement over time, which is basically how development happens in these cities and it is certainly how shelter production happens in most of these cities.
 
The fourth challenge is to focus on the entire city. In our own work, we [the Cities Alliance] have moved dramatically away from supporting projects in parts of the city, either in sectors or in geographical parts of the city, and we insist on having a view of the whole city at the same time.
 
We have seen this debate many times when the mayor says that he or she has a problem of slums, and needs to deal with the slums. Our response is, if you have 30, 40 or 60 per cent of your city is slums, you do not have a slum problem; you need to rethink your entire city and how it is governed. You need to rethink its revenues, its expenditure and your administration.
 
The fifth challenge picks up very much on the previous speaker. We need to focus on the future city. We will provide support to mayors who want to move beyond the next election cycle, which certainly dominates a huge amount of urban planning. We also need to move beyond the next developmental budget, where we have development agencies that think in one- and two-year time cycles, and introduce 10, 20, and 30-year thinking.
 
That has very practical connotations. One piece of advice we would give to the mayors is: Get the administration, get the boundary moved out now for what you anticipate the city will look like in 30 years’ time and start planning accordingly.
 
Most mayors, by the way, are very resistant to do this in the belief that by planning for future growth, you actually encourage it and welcome it. Of course, the converse never crosses their mind; they have not planned for it at all, but the growth is there anyway – unplanned, unregulated, and ultimately maybe not so explainable.
 
The last challenge to the planning profession would be this: In the cities that I have described, can you help and give the mayor the planning tools that he or she needs to cope with this level of unprecedented growth? What are the simple tools that you would advise the mayor to use to plan for a city doubling in size in 15 or 20 years? That is a real challenge that we will happily work with you on. Mayors may not know that they need it, but they very much do need it.
 
The last comment to the planning profession is do not look for magic, which is what most policy makers I talk to do. They are looking for that little trick that is going to transform the cities. It is the good, dull stuff of administration, institutional arrangements, governance, and forward planning that make the difference.
 
My challenge and response to GPEAN, who I am delighted invited me here. Some general and then some specific:
 
The first challenge – and we would like to work with you to take up this challenge with your members – about future city growth in the context of this rapid urbanisation and in the context of it happening in Africa and Asia. The first thing we would really wish to see is more support to the planning networks of Africa and Asia as appropriate.
 
Secondly, learn lessons as appropriate across regions. There is huge learning, good and bad, understanding what has happened in Colombia and in Brazil, in the countries in Latin America which is very applicable to India today and to Sub-Saharan Africa and to Southeast Asia. We are concerned that not enough learning is taking place between the regions.
 
The third is to encourage you to reassert with confidence the role of planning in city management. It is not there in many of the cities that we see, it is an afterthought. A global voice of planners looking to the future of cities is one that we would actively encourage and support.
 
I believe the challenge is, very simply, to ask and answer the question of how ordinary cities can be made to work best for all citizens, which is ultimately the political challenge that the governments, local and national, have to take.
 
Very specifically, from the Cities Alliance, I would put three challenges on the table, and we would be happy to engage with your networks.
 
First, and I believe Rob was picking up on this: Look again at the curricula, what are the students being taught today, and is it what they need to manage the cities of today and tomorrow? Too much of the planning that we come across is control and regulation based, rather than flexible and forward thinking.
 
We already see very positive signs in the Association of African Planning Schools on precisely this topic – rethinking the curricula in African planning schools.
 
Second challenge – and this is one I would be happy to make practical – is what planning tools can you support to give to the mayors of the kinds of cities that I have been talking about? What kind of practical advice can your members give? If you are not ready now, we can work together to help mayors manage this kind of transformation.
 
Thirdly, we would be happy to work with you to raise the resources necessary so that you hold your next planning congress at some city in Africa, and there we will be happy to join you.
 
Thank you very much for listening.