Sunday, February 26, 2012

Urbanisation and Poverty Alleviation

I must admit to being something of a rural idealist imagining the life of the peasant farmer as one of simplicity and content. However, a quote from one of Africas most accomplished urban designers sticks with me as I think about urbanisation in Africa: If you think urban poverty is bad, try rural poverty. And he has a point...

The daily reality of most of Africas rural poor is not the rustic chic picture of Provencal or Tuscan peasantry: wine, pastis, olives, local bakeries and poaching grouse on a neighbouring estate. Rather it is a grinding poverty of failed subsistence crops, aid reliance, malaria, child mortality and uneducated misery. It is inter-generational and it is soul-destroying. It breeds hopelessness in the saddest sense of the word. And in the face of rising energy (and associated commodity) prices and climate uncertainty it is looking bleaker still.

There are two facts about Africas population: it is growing and it is urbanising. And the status quo model for this urban growth is slums - the slums that surround and permeate our cities - with violent crime and a sense of cultural displacement replacing the grinding poverty of rural areas.  This urban poverty has become known in some circles as the 'fourth world' - in development terms, a step below the 'developing' third world that seemed to define 20th century Africa.

So what, then, is the role of cities in alleviating poverty, and perhaps more importantly, what is the role of design professionals in taking up that battle? Government take the majority of the responsibility for poverty alleviation - social grants, education and public health care services for the most part. However there are opportunities for the physical nature of our cities to play an important role too.

Since the dawn of civilisation, cities have played a pivotal role in pulling people out of poverty through the provision of entrepreneurial opportunities and access to education and healthcare. Sanitation, drinking water, mass transportation and information technology are just some of the levers that have driven modern cities to the heights of human achievement. In short, cities provide reliable access to resources and a high 'hit-rate' of innovative interaction.

However, the other inescapable element of modern cities is that they are also the heart of ecological impact, resource consumption, waste generation and harmful emissions. Our cities are the face of humanity's unsustainable behaviour. The links between human endeavor and ecological health are becoming clearer and the picture that is emerging is that for successful social development, a healthy ecosystem is required. These socio-ecological systems are at the heart of current research into resilience.

So to be effective in alleviating poverty, our cities must provide reliable access to resources and high quality human interactions for the poor and must achieve this in a manner which complements natural ecological systems. Every design intervention must have its human face and it's natural face for resilient socio-ecological systems.

Sanitation, water purification and food security would be my highest priority in addressing urban poverty and there are design solutions which are able to address all three in an integrated manner. Current resource allocations to new human settlements (RDP housing in SA) prioritise roads and sewage connections to centralised city infrastructure - both expensive investments in industrial-age models.

I would prefer to see decentralised water treatment, using ecological filters (wetlands) where possible, and the use of recycled water and recovered nutrients for urban agriculture. Combined, this water-waste-food system provides huge opportunities for local economic activity while also promoting healthier lifestyles through access to drinking water and healthy food.

On the ecological side, a wetland-based water treatment system allows the reintroduction of biodiverse nodes into the urban environment, improving ecosystem services (to urban agriculture) and broad system resilience.

While reallocating funding from roads may be contentious in our car-based cities, I acknowledge the need for investing in functional public transport to enable this shift. However, I would suggest that this is a prerequisite for equitable cities and leave that discussion for another time.
My second priority for addressing urban poverty would be widespread information connectivity. The mobile data revolution in Africa is paving that way already, with among the highest smart-phone penetration rates globally. Access to fast information and communications is a core requirement for successful micro-businesses in a post-industrial economy and underpins the small, medium and micro-enterprise (SMME) approach to poverty alleviation.

It would also begin to allow better non-governmental intervention in education - another pre-requisite for human development. The mobile information revolution has already been applied to banking, but partnered with micro-finance, has the potential to unlock even more entrepreneurial creativity.

Again, on the ecological side, fast information and virtual-presence connectivity reduces the need for physical transport - a major household and environmental cost.

While there are huge requirements around basic services for effective poverty alleviation - healthcare probably being top of the list - my final design-related priority is the inclusion of basic child-care facilities in the buildings which comprise our cities. Architects should include provision for a crèche in every building.

Aside from the cultural barriers to women working, one of the major reasons Africa's urban women are excluded from the workplace is the lack of child care options which can realistically and affordable be accessed. Flexible work and child care options are an important gender justice issue, but beyond that, they are a critical issue to address urban poverty in Africa.

Guardian columnist George Monbiot, had the following to say: "If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire." Africa's women work, hard, and are responsible for a substantial share of the continent's development potential.
This does not mean women should be compelled to work, nor should new mothers be rushed back into the workforce so that a generation of Africans are raised by strangers (as we see in so many developed nations). But rather that the infrastructure supports their options to return to work in a manner that works for them. In short, our women must be able to be mothers and employees or entrepreneurs, at the same time.

I acknowledge that poverty is a complex issue, often muddied with past inequality, racial discrimination and, in Africa, the stigma of colonialism (past and present). However, as designers of Africa's new cities, there are clear steps we can take in prioritising systems and infrastructure which break some of the barriers of entrenched poverty,  while fostering resilient socio-ecological systems in our cities. 

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