The New Urban Agenda and its 47 inclusions

A woman walks along a pipe with a bucket in her hand.


Inclusion can be a powerful term, particularly when applied to cities and urbanisation. It focuses attention on the means through which exclusion and inequality are produced and reproduced, and on achieving a more just ‘inclusion’.

This is lost, however, when inclusion becomes a catch-all for social aspirations. Other aspirational terms, including sustainability and resilience, have lost their bite on becoming goals of global development. The same is happening with inclusion – a key word in the agenda for the Habitat III conference, the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, which takes place next week.

Inclusion: the social aspiration of choice

Two documents, published 20 years apart, show the rise of inclusion has become the social aspiration of choice in global agendas:

  • The Habitat II Agenda, which came out of the 1996 United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II), mentioned inclusion twice – both times in the narrow sense of including more stakeholders or groups in specified types of institutions or dialogues.
  • The far shorter New Urban Agenda drafted for the 2016 Habitat III conference calls for inclusion 47 times (including calls for inclusive cities, inclusive economies, etc.).

Furthermore, the 2030 Agenda designed to guide international development from 2015 to 2030 made a similar number of calls for inclusion. The eleventh of its 17 Sustainable Development Goals is to ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’.

Hilary Silver provides a review of the The Contexts of Social Inclusion in response to this increased attention. But it’s doubtful whether her well thought out ideas were in the minds of those who agreed upon inclusion as a leading goal.

Why have so many diverse international actors come out in support of inclusion?

Inclusion has become a goal that many agree is unreservedly good, in part because they interpret it differently. For example:

  • Liberal conservatives (or neoliberals) tend to interpret the inclusive city as one that provides access to services and markets without discrimination on the basis of identity;
  • Human rights activists tend to interpret the inclusive city as one where governments take seriously their duty to secure the rights of every individual;
  • Radical collectivists (or neo-Marxists) tend to interpret the inclusive city as one where all have a right to the city, including the right to collectively remake it.

The New Urban Agenda, like the 2030 Agenda, manages to hide such contradictions by being largely silent on implementation. Actively expanding markets, for example, may be inherently inclusive from a neoliberal perspective, while creating exclusions (or adverse inclusion) from another perspective. And indeed, depending on the context, when people gain more access to markets, or become involved in a radical remaking of the city, this may or may not benefit them.

Spatial exclusion and cities

Spatial exclusion is especially characteristic of cities and urbanisation.

While there are sharp contradictions between the sorts of inclusion idealised by those of different political persuasions, cities and urbanisation are permeated with negative processes that can be described as exclusion and positive processes of inclusion.

Spatial exclusion and inclusion and are particularly salient. Exclusion can be overtly discriminatory, or more subtly benefitting privileged groups over others. People can be excluded from or included in the city, or spaces and places within the city.

Underserved informal settlements are exclusionary; so are gated communities that keep the uninvited public out. Public squares and parks can be more or less inclusive, and the promise of inclusion implicit in public squares make them attractive sites of public protest.

The physical barriers that arise in response to urban conflict overtly exclude people (see this on such barriers in Karachi), but the more important barriers are often invisible. Inclusion involves the elimination of exclusion, and much more.

The challenge of inclusion during urbanisation

Spatial exclusion, and the need for countervailing policies and practices of inclusion, is particularly important during periods of rapid urbanisation (see this paper and article in Environment & Urbanization which is also available in Spanish).

Nobody watching the more affluent Global North struggling to stem the small migrant flows from the Global South should be surprised that the more affluent urban centres in the South struggle to handle far greater flows from rural areas.

Cities and towns rarely have borders. But they have other ways of trying to limit migration or their responsibility for migrants. These range from requiring registration papers, to regulations inhibiting low-cost housing, to planning for a population they want rather than the population they know they are likely to get.

This makes life difficult not just for migrants, who usually account for a minority of urban growth, but also for the rest of the low-income urban population.

Active and formal exclusion in urbanising countries

South Africa’s Apartheid system must be among the most overtly racist and oppressive of the many exclusionary attempts to control rural-urban migration.

In China, the hukou system originally acted to prevent rural-urban migration, but was then transformed into a system that allowed special mobility but inhibited social mobility by ensuring rural hukou holders were second class citizens excluded from urban benefits. Less elaborate city registration systems are common.

Passive and informal exclusion in urbanising countries

The large and underserviced informal settlements in the cities of most low income and urbanising countries are symptomatic of the more common passive mechanisms of exclusion.

Even when urban growth is rapid and a large share of the population is living in poverty, the formal systems for land development are usually designed for cities growing at a ‘manageable’ pace, for residents who can afford acceptable/formal homes and secure acceptable/formal jobs. This effectively excludes them from the formal housing markets, with similar processes excluding them from formal jobs.

Demographics and economic pressures ensure that the growth continues in the expanding informal settlements and economies. This can create exclusions like to those associated with formal exclusion. In effect, the deficiencies that would arise from rapid and unanticipated population growth are amplified by planning responding to fears of encouraging rapid in-migration, and maintained by perverse feedback loops as ‘slums’ expand more rapidly still.

Urban exclusion in affluent countries

Urban exclusion, and the need for inclusion, are also evident in wealthy countries which are no longer urbanising.

There is a parallel between international migrants who do not have the formal permissions to stay legally in their host country, and rural-urban migrants who do not have formal permissions to live and work as they do in their host cities. But international migrants are a comparatively small group, even in major destinations such as the United States, and the treatment of migrants is less central to its urban exclusion.

Moving beyond migrants, two recent big-sellers focus on mechanisms of urban exclusion, illuminating contemporary problems of race, inequality and gender in the Urban States:

  • Alice Goffman’s On the Run shows in detail how drugs and the prevailing approach to policing in a low-income African American neighbourhood of Philadelphia lead almost inevitably to escalating exclusion and routine incarceration, particularly of African American males.
  • Matthew Desmond’s Evicted shows how evictions, and the legal system that supports them, drive exclusion in the more deprived parts of Milwaukee, helping to reproduce the poverty of many, and of African American women in particular.

More generally, segregation by income and race has long been a concern in the cities of the United States. Recent research demonstrates a close association between segregation and income inequality in the area people live and a lack of inter-generational socio-economic mobility, leading a group of well-known economists to ask Where is the land of opportunity? – and to answer that it is not found in areas of social exclusion.

Of course, not all inequalities or injustices can be explained in terms of exclusion, and inclusion will not solve all social problems. ‘Inclusion’ is not, for example, the demand one expects from the 99% – unless it is more inclusion in the tax system for the wealthiest 1%.

But striving for more inclusive cities is a noble and important pursuit, even if the fact that the nations of the world came together and agreed that all cities should be inclusive may not be very meaningful.

This post first appeared on the IDS website. Top image: Dharavi Pipe Walk, III by Meena Kadri on Flickr (cc-by-nc-nd 2.0)


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