Foto: Gilberto Abreu/PNUD

Cities are one of the cornerstones of modern life, setting trends in lifestyle, culture, and politics. A UN report captures urbanization's role for civilization arguing that “Cities are hubs for ideas, commerce, culture, science, productivity, social, human and economic development. Urban planning, transport systems, water, sanitation, waste management, disaster risk reduction, access to information, education and capacity-building are all relevant issues to sustainable urban development”. Today, about 55% of the world's population lives in cities; in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), 80% of its population is urban. 

Film depictions of futuristic cities portray flying cars, IoT/smart high-rise buildings and homes, ultra-advanced medical technologies, AI-powered robotics in everyday life, etc. And while such imageries may appeal to our hopes of a better tomorrow, in March 2020 most countries around the world faced a harsh and unexpected reality check which revealed profound disparities of urban life. In many parts of the global south, the COVID19 crisis drew a contrasting picture of the futuristic city. 

COVID-19: Urbanization's reality check  

In 2021, as the global community looks forward to the end of the pandemic, cities around the world have slowly returned to their usual pace of life. Yet, for cities getting back to business-as-usual, it might be unwise to disregard some of the lessons we should have learned during the lockdowns. If there are any positive takeaways from the COVID-19 calamity, one was the chance to critically reflect on the inequalities of life in a city. It had on display the socio-spatial segregation and unpleasant other side of urban peripheries. For millions of the urban poor, the lockdowns meant being imprisoned by scarcity, violence, and despair.  

It is the right time to resume this critical conversation about cities and sustainable urban development. So, instead of discussing the features of the futuristic city, this article reflects on previous urbanization processes and highlights some of the most pressing issues for present-day cities.  

Sins of the past 

Unplanned rural-urban migration. Modernization and the economic benefits of urban agglomeration drew large migration movements to city centers. In the developing world, poor rural and small-town dwellers concentrated in the periphery of cities, effectively becoming the urban poor. LAC is a prime example of governments’ ineffectiveness to plan and integrate that migration into the advantages and opportunities of urbanization.  

Urban sprawl. As migration increased, there emerged precarious, informal settlements as shanty towns and slums, disconnected and detached from middle-class urbanity. Cities in the developing global south have come to be characterized by the unplanned and unregulated use of large urban areas. These outskirts have become the epitome of unequal socio-spatial appropriation, resulting in cities fragmented by socioeconomic status and class stigmas. 

Normalized stratification. As cities prospered, stratification and socio-spatial segregation became more normalized. In LAC, urban discourse framed poor neighborhoods as ghettos (barrios marginados, villa miseria, favelas), setting them apart from suburbia and city-centered districts. Discourse then influenced policy, as public interventions aimed at improving those areas while maintaining the structural conditions of social exclusion further perpetuated the idea of class.  

Troubles of the present  

Unequal right to the city. Yesterday's sins now constitute the great urban challenges in the global south. Cities can be enjoyable spaces of social interaction, yet, as it stands, there is a sense of otherness, of cities within cities, a progressive disenfranchisement from the benefits and treats of urban life for those socially excluded. This translates into disparate access to services such as sanitation, education, transportation and mobility, as well as children and youth deprived of adequate leisure spaces.  

Urban apartheids. As income inequality taints many aspects of city life, both affluent and deprived areas tend to build their own cultural codes of identity, thus socially becoming further apart from each other. Mistrust between social strata usually deepens the erosion of social capital at the expense of solidarity and cohesion. There is an upsurge of gated, suburban communities, in need to protect themselves from the perceived dangers posed by the popular masses of the peripheries.  

Pervasive informality. The unregulated urban sprawl has led to a qualitative housing deficit and an irregular tenure of property, which De Soto refers to as "dead capital". Yet informality in the city goes beyond housing or employment; it is culturally ingrained in the survival strategies, in attitudes about family planning and child-rearing, health care, conflict resolution, political and civic participation, etc. Informality is cemented on an attitudinal mistrust of power and government.  

Environmental pressure and health. Urbanization renders a major tax on the environment, but it is the marginalized poor who faces the most burden. Residents in informal settlements endure a lack of air quality, pollution, water contamination, littering, and improper waste disposal. Preventable diseases spread due to poor hygiene regimens and overcrowding. Moreover, limited public space (if any), lack of trees and green areas, and noise pollution all contribute to a lower quality of life. 

Dreams of the future  

We are then at a crossroads. While humanity is now on the verge of making quantum leaps in scientific and technological advancements that will transform the world as we know it, we are also faced with unprecedented inequality. Should we dream of that futuristic city when the ones we inhabit now are so constrained by 20th-century problems? 

Should we envision self-driving cars for cities where deficient mass transportation is still a clear social marker? Should we talk about smart homes when considerable percentages of urban populations have no decent roof? Will the futuristic city enhance or restrain social cohesion?  

As we come to a close of UNDP/DR’s “Future Spaces” challenge, these are the questions driving our quest for the inclusive city. If cities are what we make of them, let us dream of a humane city where people can have the means to a decent life regardless of social status, a home to the common aspiration of a good life, to leave no one behind.  

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