Are New Cities Being Built for Inclusivity?

By Celine Thomas
Social Connectedness Fellow

Putrajaya, Malaysia

Almost two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban centres by 2030, and 95% of urban expansion in the next few decades will take place in the developing world.[i] Cities today contribute more than 70-80% of global GDP and have been historically designed as centres for thriving cultures and societies.[ii] The underreported story, however, surrounds the type of cities that countries are building to meet the demands of urbanization and economic development.

In my final semester at McGill University, I took a fascinating geography course on the topic of new master-planned cities. A common theme emerged amongst many of the empirical cases we reviewed: many of the new cities being built around the world are creating geographies of exclusion through the design and development of their master plans.

There are currently over 100 new cities being built around the world, mostly in Asia, Africa and South America. While urbanization is a major impetus for the creation of new cities, new city planning in the Global South has often been top-down, with little input from the grassroots. Many new city decision makers have their own agendas that serve nationalist goals or even corporate interests. This has often resulted in local communities being isolated from their livelihoods where new cities are built.

Take India, a country seeking to become a global economic power and whose population is expected to exceed China’s within the coming decades. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Smart Cities Mission, which aims to improve, renew or extend current cities into ‘Smart Cities’.[iii] A Smart City is defined as a place where “information technology is combined with infrastructure architecture, everyday objects and our own bodies to address social, economic and environmental problems.”[iv] This definition implies that Smart Cities should be tackling common urban issues such as income inequality, inadequate housing and mixed-use land spaces.

However, many of India’s Smart Cities have not lived up to these standards. Dholera, India’s first planned Smart City, is designed to be an economic catalyst for the state of Gujurat, yet is has been nothing short of a disaster for local communities. According to Dr. Ayonna Datta, a pioneer scholar of Indian cities, the proposals for Dholera have sparked several protests due to a lack of public participation in the planning of the city and the forced eviction of locals from their land.[v] Datta asserts that in the neoliberal state of Gujurat, Dholera presents a utopian social dream that caters to citizens who can afford a digital/corporate lifestyle. Dholera thus presents a poor example for other Smart Cities in India due to its isolation of locals from the master plan.

Another example is the newly designed capital of Malaysia, Putrajaya. The city was built to re-instate a national Islamic identity that breaks away from its colonial past. Malaysia has prided itself for its diversity, as seen in the urban layout of its old capital, Kuala Lumpur, which contains various architectural styles that meet the needs of several of the city’s ethnic minorities, such as Chinese and Indians. However, according to new-city scholar Sarah Moser, Putrajaya is “clearly intended to be read against the colonial/Chinese city of Kuala Lumpur in a way that racializes the urban landscape.”[vi] The city is also criticized for only serving the needs of its Muslim population by adopting a completely Islamic architecture from the Middle East, thereby excluding Indigenous architectural forms. In short, Putrajaya is excluding cultural spaces catered to other ethnic minorities, which reinforces their isolation.

However, not all hope for inclusion should be lost. Both the World Bank and the United Nations have emphasized the need for inclusion in the development of new cities. In 2015, the World Bank released a report addressing the need for spatially, socially and economically inclusive interventions in cities, and has been working with several cities to adopt an inclusive framework. For example, the Vietnam Urban Upgrading Project combined infrastructure improvements with active community engagement, ensuring that poor households had a voice in the upgrading options and were provided certificates that guaranteed rights to their land.[vii] As a result, 7.5 million people in the low-income areas of Ho Chi Minh City and the surrounding area have been equipped with better infrastructure to combat health and environmental risks. Similar projects are underway in older cities in Tanzania and Jamaica as well.

Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals, regarding sustainable cities and communities, includes the following target: “By 2030, enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries”.[viii] Thus, inclusion in city planning and development is being emphasized at the global level, so why are we not seeing more of it in new cities?

International organizations and local communities need to hold national governments and corporations accountable for the inclusion of local voices in new city planning. Inclusion, as echoed by the World Bank, means guaranteeing equitable access to land, housing and infrastructure; providing rights and participation of locals in urban design; and ensuring economic opportunities for all. Without inclusive practices, cities will continue to exacerbate urban issues and deter economic development.

So, the next time you hear or read about a new city or urban area being developed, ask yourself: Who’s involved in the planning? Who’s the city targeting or excluding? How are locals responding? The more we consider the answers to these questions, the better equipped we’ll be to support policy change and grassroots initiatives that create more inclusive cities.

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[i] “Sustainable Development Goal 11.” United Nations. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg11.

[ii] “Inclusive Cities.” World Bank. October 29, 2015. http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/urbandevelopment/brief/inclusive-cities.

[iii] “Strategy.” Smart Cities Mission, Government of India. April 12, 2017. http://smartcities.gov.in/content/innerpage/strategy.php.

[iv] Townsend, Anthony. “Smart Cities: Buggy and Brittle.” Places Journal. October 2013. https://placesjournal.org/article/smart-cities/.

[v] Datta, A. “New urban utopias of postcolonial India: Entrepreneurial urbanization in Dholera smart city, Gujarat.” Dialogues in Human Geography5, no. 1 (2015): 3-22. doi:10.1177/2043820614565748.

[vi] Moser, S. “Circulating Visions of High Islam: The Adoption of Fantasy Middle Eastern Architecture in Constructing Malaysian National Identity.” Urban Studies49, no. 13 (2012): 2913-935. doi:10.1177/0042098012452453.

[vii] “Inclusive Cities.” World Bank. October 29, 2015.

[viii] “Sustainable Development Goal 11.” United Nations. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg11.