• September 20, 2019
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How can we design more inclusive cities?

Opinion: From design exchanges to civic engagement, here's what cities are doing

This opinion article was written by Cynthia Smith, Curator of Socially Responsible Design, Smithsonian Design Museum, and was originally published by WEF. For more like this, see our smart cities and urban planning newsfeed. 


Over half the world currently resides in major urban areas. By 2050 the United Nations estimates that number will grow to 70%. With proximity and access to networks, cities have been engines of innovation for centuries, providing a clear path from poverty to prosperity for many.

Cities have offered greater freedom and opportunity for social mobility for immigrants, minorities, and women than more traditional rural locations. As metropolises have grown — there are 33 megacities with 10 million inhabitants, and 8 cities with at least 20 million — cities are increasingly at the centre of the debate for a range of urgent global issues, from refugee migration to global warming.

Innovative responses

Mayors and local governments in cities around the world are collaborating with designers, architects, planners, and local communities to propose and implement innovative and “concrete solutions for inclusive, safe, and sustainable urban space.”

In the Netherlands’ coastal city of Rotterdam, its mayor launched an urban strategy to be fully climate proof by 2025. Prioritising climate resilience, with 90% of the city below sea level, it is adapting its infrastructure to safely live with the water by integrating blue and green corridors into the urban landscape, while increasing biodiversity and supporting social cohesion with experimental housing, public spaces and programs.

Barcelona in Spain seeks to include every voice in the city’s decision-making. It established a dynamic participatory process where its city council collaborates with over 600 civil associations. Organised into action networks, each is focused on a topic, such as labour, housing, education or immigrant reception. Cooperating with the government on agreed strategies, and sharing knowledge and resources, they improve outcomes by combining efforts.

Design exchanges

Many local authorities, confronted by the growing number of people migrating to informal settlements around the world – an estimated 2 billion by 2030, are responding with innovative housing and service solutions.

In Chile, a local city government with limited funds engaged architects to design social housing that would increase — rather than decrease — in value over time. The architects collaborated with the settlement community, building only half of the house the families would never be able to afford — the structure, bathroom, kitchen, and roof — leaving residents responsible for the rest.

Over 60% of the world’s workers are in the informal economy and lack decent working conditions and rights

Other municipalities are seeking to create a more inclusive city by giving a voice in urban planning and design processes to informal workers. Over 60% of the world’s workers are in the informal economy and lack decent working conditions and rights. Architects commissioned by the city of Durban in South Africa consulted formal and informal businesses, residents, and commuters to overcome biases to design safer markets for 5,000 informal traders at a robust transportation hub.

Transnationally, networks like Shack/Slum Dwellers International, comprised of urban poor, have created a set of redevelopment tools they can implement to build more inclusive cities, which they share directly by visiting each other’s cities.

Education for all

Providing youth with a quality education, regardless of their abilities, race, language, religion, gender or economic status, is fundamental to creating a thriving inclusive urban society. In India’s rapidly expanding urban areas, new developments are built by workers who move to and from sites, making even a basic education difficult for their children.

The rapid convergence of data and technological innovations are increasingly impacting cities around the world

In Pune, to accommodate these transient lives, Door Step School sends a small bus classroom to pick up students, providing a stable setting in which students learn basic literacy and arithmetic skills. In New Zealand, there are supportive multi-cultural playgroups, where refugee parents learn English and information about early childhood education as they transition into their community.

The rapid convergence of data and technological innovations are increasingly impacting cities around the world. Smarter connected urban areas promise safer, multi-modal, inclusive streetscapes and transport that ease access for older adults, and the 15% of the population who are living with physical and cognitive disabilities.

Advances like Accessible Olli, an autonomous shuttle with software that can process sign language and simplified displays that remind individuals with memory loss, or Blindways, a mobile app that guides pedestrians who are blind to bus stops using community sourced clues, offer new independence of movement.

Human-centered values

Yet, there are multiple hurdles to overcome, including developing global principles for machine ethics and addressing gender and racial biases in data and algorithms, for cities to be truly inclusive and smart.

The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 11 aims to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable” by 2030. Making our cities more inclusive is central to this universal call to action to protect the planet and ensure all people enjoy peace and prosperity.

This article was originally published by The World Economic Forum. To read the article, click here.

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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