WUF 7: Day Two — Are Economic Forces Conspiring Against Cities of Opportunity?

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This is the third post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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While thousands of urbanists have gathered here in Medellin, Colombia to discuss ways to create “cities of opportunity,” there is increasing evidence that there may be decreasing hope of creating these places unless we are willing to make significant changes in the way that incomes and wealth are distributed and cities are funded.

This is because there is increasing income inequality within the first, second and third worlds. The most apparent way that income inequality manifests itself is in the very small percentage of individuals who control the bulk of resources, making it increasingly difficult for the least well off to access educational, health care, social and other societal benefits.

Thomas Piketty shows, in his recently published book Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Belknap, Harvard University Press, 2014), that the current move away from income equality (a 20th century phenomenon that Piketty argues will not be repeated) and toward wealth controlled by a very small percentage now appears inevitable, and what separates the haves from the have not’s will become a permanent fixture as we move deeper into the 21st century.

In fact, Piketty notes, this phenomenon appears to be especially true in the United States and what he calls the Anglo-Saxon countries where income inequality is approaching or surpassing levels last seen in 1928 just prior to the Great Depression.

In the United States, ten percent of income earners account for 50 percent of the earnings, and the top one percent of earners account for 25 percent. In the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia the trends are not as dramatic but still significant and appear to be replicating what is happening in the United States. In those countries, the top one percent of earners account for between 10 and 15 percent of all the earnings. And among emerging nations like Colombia, South Africa and China, the picture is no better.

In Colombia, the top one percent of income earners accounts for more than 20 percent of the earnings; in South Africa they account for more than 18 percent; and in China, which is among the lowest, they account for 10 percent. In these countries, the middle class — which was truly a phenomenon of the 20th century — is either rapidly disappearing or struggling to emerge.

The United Nations estimates that two-thirds of the world’s urban population lives in cities where income inequality has increased since 1980. In many cases, this increase has been staggering, and the inequalities have shown themselves in the way that cities are divided utilizing invisible yet ever present borders that take the form of social, cultural and economic exclusion.

Slums, the face of poverty and urban inequality, continue to increase in most countries in the developing world, and remain a significant problem in the developed world, perpetuating the lack of access to basic services and political representation to the most vulnerable communities.

Gender inequality persists, preventing women from accessing secondary education, decent employment, political representation and reproductive health care. Moreover, youth inequalities manifest through discrimination in access to education, differentiated levels of employment and livelihood opportunities, lack of participation in decision making and prejudice against sexual preferences.

Can this trend be reversed? The optimistic group of urbanists who have come together here in Medellin are arguing yes. In sessions and workshops they are providing evidence for the potential to change urban food deserts into food rich zones, urban parks into oases from which everyone can benefit, disenfranchised youth into productive members of their communities, areas with high crime into areas of development and bad schools into oases of learning.

None of this, they argue, is either easy or cheap; but they argue it is one of the many things our urban communities need to do in order to grow and expand.

Cities, then, are a critical component in addressing these problems. As is being talked about in the many dialogues that are taking place, the design, governance and infrastructure of each city will have a direct impact on the lives and opportunities of their residents.

The ways in which cities decide to proceed with development, urban planning and design, the provision of basic services, project financing, urban resilience and public safety will determine in large part the extent to which they become cities of opportunity in which all people can thrive.