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The Importance of Fostering Belonging and Inclusion in Cities

The Outremont neighbourhood in Montreal, Quebec. Photo credit: Claire Suh
February 25, 2020

Amy Weinfurter is the Research Associate and Lab Manager for Data-Driven EnviroLab (Data-Driven Lab), where she explores the growing role that cities, states, businesses, and investors play in addressing climate change. The Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness has been working with Data-Driven Lab for many years to advance social connectedness as a critical indicator in environmental measurement. We co-authored this article, which was originally published on the Data-Driven EnviroLab blog.

On February 9, 2020, Data-Driven Lab, in collaboration with the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, launched an expanded version of the Urban Environment and Social Inclusion Index (UESI) at the 10th World Urban Forum (WUF) in Abu Dhabi. 

The UESI maps cities’ distribution of environmental burdens and benefits across neighborhoods in over 160 cities to track the ways income inequality and environmental inequality intersect. 

At the WUF, social inclusion was a theme that ran throughout the panel discussions and side conversations. Many local governments shared insights into how they worked to bring local communities into decision-making processes, allowing time to build trust and relationships, and to test and iterate tools and models on the ground. Transparency was cited as a key ingredient in both of these processes. 

The Sustainable Development Goals include Goal 11, which aims to foster “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” cities, yet exact definitions of social inclusion can be difficult to parse. What exactly does an inclusive city look like?

The driving definition of social inclusion within the UESI draws on the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness’ expertise in building social connectedness and belonging. The Centre has developed a framework for understanding belonging, which underpins the importance of tools like the UESI. Belonging, according to SCSC, encompasses connection to people, place, power, and purpose. The UESI highlights the importance of connection to place and power in addressing climate change and urban sustainability. 

When we feel a sense of belonging to a physical place like our home or city, or a natural ecosystem, and understand the needs of our environment, we are more likely to feel a commitment to preserving it. Belonging through power means having a sense of agency to contribute to our communities and political processes. 

The UESI tracks the ways environmental benefits and burdens are distributed across neighborhoods. This information can be used by all stakeholders, from policymakers to local residents, to advocate for more equitable environmental policies. As such, the UESI has come to define social inclusion as the process of ensuring all members of society have both representation and agency in shaping the decisions that determine their social, political, economic, and cultural lives. 

In the video below Kim Samuel, the Founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness, dives into this definition—and its intersections with urban environmental performance—in greater detail. 

While measuring all aspects of social inclusion remains an ongoing challenge, what we can commit to is ensuring that a social inclusion and equity lens is always placed on urban sustainability policy and measurement. For instance, Social Connectedness Fellow Claire Suh created a deep dive into the different ways Montreal neighborhoods are responding to and preparing for urban heat, after learning about the spike in deaths in more poorer and isolated neighborhoods. Her research uncovered strategies—like holding îlots de fraîcheur (air conditioned gatherings) at community centres and table de concertation des aînés (consultations with different stakeholders)—that other neighborhoods can adopt to both build connections between residents, and to protect vulnerable populations from environmental hazards like urban heat. 

“The UESI is a unique contribution to the field of social inclusion, measurement and climate action,” said Kim Samuel.  “It is not just a ranking but a resource, equipping us all—policymakers, corporate leaders, and citizens—with the objective information to drive change.”