In Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, you cannot miss the slum neighborhoods. More than 5,000 slum communities, accounting for 40 percent of the population, are spread across the city, often located right next to luxury penthouses, hotels, and high-rise office buildings. Most slum dwellers are limited to low-quality housing in precarious areas, often prone to flooding. The limited access to adequate shelter is an important factor that – according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2015 livability rankings – makes Dhaka one of the least livable cities in the world. These communities are among the most neglected in the city in terms of urban policy, planning, and development, although the people who live in the slums make up the lion’s share of the work force, which drives the city’s economy, contributing significantly to the garment and leather industries, construction, waste management, and many other informal sectors.
Living in slums puts enormous social, economic, and financial burdens on households, and it can lead to intergenerational poverty. Many argue that slum dwellers are caught in a poverty trap—that living in slums makes it harder for households to escape poverty. Several slum-related factors contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, including poor health outcomes; an inability to access finance or leverage property assets; and lack of access to basic services. The existence of slums is a symptom of a shortage of affordable housing, the provision of which can be viewed as a valuable goal in its own right and as a critical ingredient in addressing the broader challenges of poverty.
The mountain kingdom of Bhutan may not seem an obvious place to look for lessons on addressing climate change. But on a recent visit I was impressed with how much this small country has achieved and also with its ambition. Bhutan has much to teach South Asia and the wider world. These lessons are especially relevant as the world negotiates in Paris a new pact on climate change at the International Climate Change Summit, known as COP21, which we all hope will eventually move the global economy to a low carbon and more resilient path.
The talks aimed at agreeing a way to keep global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial era levels. There is widespread agreement that going above this threshold would have serious consequences. South Asia is among the regions of the world that is likely to be most affected by climate change. We are already experiencing this. There is increasing variability of the monsoon rainfall, more heavy rainfalls such as those that caused the recent flooding in India, and an increase in the number of droughts.
A World Bank report in 2013 predicted that even if the warming climate was kept at 2 degrees then this could threaten the lives of millions of people in South Asia. The region's dense urban populations face extreme heat, flooding and diseases and millions of people could be trapped in poverty. Droughts could especially affect north-western India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
These are big problems. They may look much bigger than anything Bhutan - a very small country in a populous region - can teach South Asia and the world. But I see three lessons. Firstly, a commitment to ambitious goals will be critical to save the world from climate disaster. To stop the world from warming too much, climate experts estimate that global greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by up to 70 percent by 2050. Carbon neutrality (zero emissions) must be achieved within this century.
Dechen, a shy, soft- spoken, 31 year-old divorcee, unexpectedly lights up when I enquire about her poultry farm. A single mother of three children (aged 11, 6 and 3), she has strong reasons to feel good about what she does. It’s her sole responsibility to take care of her family from the income generated by the farm.
Dechen’s farm is a 15-minute uphill trek from a motorable road in Langthel village in the Trongsa district nested in central Bhutan. It is approximately a 10-hour drive on winding roads from the capital city, Thimphu.
Despite the remoteness of the village, Dechen is doing well for herself. She has already earned a Ngultrum (Nu) 45,000 (US $684) net profit since she started her poultry farm a year and a half ago. Having her own – and successful -- business has made her more self-confident and determined.
And she has even bigger dreams.
Inclusion means that all people and communities have access to rights, opportunities, and resources. Urbanization provides cities the potential to increase prosperity and livability. However, many suffer from poor environments, social instability, inequality, and concentrated pockets of poverty that create exclusion. In South Asia, as in other regions, segregation within cities cause poorer areas to suffer from the lack of access to facilities and services that exacerbate misery and crime.
Medellin, Colombia was once the most dangerous city on the planet with astounding gaps between the wealthy and the poor, vastly different access to services, and the highest homicide rate in the world. Its turnaround has been impressive. Much of the progress has been attributed to the thoughtfulness of its planning to ensure greater inclusion. What can South Asian cities learn from this South American city?
Planning policies and action have often been concentrated on the broad structures and functions of cities. However, drilling down the details can realize an inclusive urban environment that improves life for all in public spaces. In our definition, inclusive cities provide:
- Mobility: A high level of movement between different neighborhoods that provide opportunities for jobs, education, and culture;
- Services: All neighborhoods have a basic level of facilities and affordable necesities such as housing, water, and sanitation;
- Accessibility: Urban spaces are designed so that everyone can easily and safety enjoy public spaces.
What happened in Medellin, Colombia? Medellin offers an inspiring example of how improved planning and sound implementation can increase social inclusion. Two decades ago, Medellin was the homicide capital of the world. Illicit drugs were a major export and hillside slums were particularly affected by violence. In response, the government created public facilities inclusive of libraries and schools, public transportation links, and recreational spaces in the poorest neighborhoods; and connecting them with the city’s commercial and industrial centers. As a result of a planning model that seeks to serve all residents, the city has become safer, healthier, more educated and equitable.
Urbanization provides the countries of South Asia with the opportunity to transform their economies to join the ranks of richer nations. But to reap the benefits of urbanization, nations must address the challenges it poses. Growing urban populations put pressure on a city’s infrastructure; they increase the demand for basic services, land and housing, and they add stress to the environment.
Of all these congestion forces, one of the most serious for health and human welfare is ambient air pollution from vehicle emissions and the burning of fossil fuels by industry and households, according to the World Bank report, “Leveraging Urbanization in South Asia: Managing Spatial Transformation for Prosperity and Livability.”
Particularly harmful are high concentrations of fine particulate matter, especially that of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5). They can penetrate deep into the lungs, increasing the likelihood of asthma, lung cancer, severe respiratory illness, and heart disease.
Data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) in May 2014 shows Delhi to have the most polluted air of any city in the world, with an annual mean concentration of PM2.5 of 152.6 μg/m3 . That is more than 15 times greater than the WHO’s guideline value and high enough to make Beijing’s air—known for its bad quality—look comparatively clean.
But Delhi is far from unique among South Asia’s cities.
South Asia’s urbanization has been described as “messy, hidden and underleveraged." A lot has to do with how South Asian countries manage their cities’ spatial development.
Having visited many cities in South Asia, the sight of the built environment in the region is a familiar one–a rapid expansion of built-up areas and an accompanying low-density sprawl that has, all too often, gone hand-in-hand with poorly managed transportation systems, planning constraints, underutilized land, and a lack of institutional capacity and resources. These forces result in high land and rental costs that make it extremely challenging for cities to support affordable housing and commercial space, and to maintain a livable public realm.