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Published on 28/04/2014

Medellin Urban Forum file: Poor neighbourhoods: develop rather than destroy them

‘Urban equity in development, towns and cities for life’: This is the ambition on which the World Urban Forum (WUF) held in Medellín (Colombia) from 5-11 April 2014 was based. Working for the poor neighbourhoods to be included in the city for over 20 years, GRET has been testifying to the relevance and conditions of ‘in-situ rehabilitation of poor neighbourhoods’ for the inhabitants. It organised jointly with the French Development Agency a workshop during which it presented its sustainable town/city approach, that it considers synonymous with ‘town/city for everyone’, and upgraded efforts in favour of rehabilitation in the face of the technical constraints and political reluctance.

Rehabilitation: a way of building the ‘sustainable town/city’?

Nearly a billion of the world’s population live in poor neighbourhoods, and UN-Habitat estimates that they make up around 50 percent of towns/cities in the world. Living conditions are difficult there: isolation, construction in risk areas, non-performing public services, precarious and insecure housing, pollution, insecurity. Considered illegitimate or dangerous, these neighbourhoods are often ignored and even cracked down on or destroyed by the authorities.

Yet these neighbourhoods, born out of popular initiatives to offset defection by the authorities, possess many assets. Although very varied, they naturally contain some of the qualities that attempts are made to recreate elsewhere, in order to build ‘sustainable towns/cities’: a strong identity, solid social ties, density, closeness of employment and service areas (administration, culture, education, healthcare) people usually walk to, economical usage of water and electricity resources, “as-you-use” waste recycling.

In many towns/cities in poor and underdeveloped countries, due to the shortage of well-located land and of available money to absorb the expected urban growth (towns/cities will double in number by 2030), they represent the only viable alternative for accommodating humble families. Rehabilitating these neighbourhoods rather than demolishing the houses makes sense: Why knock down what is often the only property the families own and then build elsewhere housing that these same families will not be able to afford to live in.

The city of Medellín, which hosted the 21,000 participants in the WUF from 150 countries, has perfectly understood this. Since the beginning of this new century, it has been investing in rehabilitating popular neighbourhoods as a way of combating drug trafficking and violence, with the emphasis on opening them up. It was the first city to use cable-cars as a means of public transport , before others such as Bogotá or Rio de Janeiro took up the idea. In addition to building infrastructures (sewers, transport), a considerable amount of work was done to advance culture, education and “living together”. Rehabilitation policies are based on a participatory method which fully integrates the inhabitants. Their voices are heard, their involvement in projects is sought and they are trained to incite behaviour changes. Much however remains to be done to make up for the years when whole parts of the city were neglected by the authorities, and many neighbourhoods are still waiting for the city council to take an interest in them.

Intermediation, participation, planning: three pillars of rehabilitation

A more egalitarian urban development will not come into being without proactive urban policies and long-term investment by the authorities. There are three fundamental pillars in urban rehabilitation operations: public policies and legal frameworks which take into account the makeshift neighbourhoods; aids enabling knowledge of the city and a thinking on urban planning; operational work with the inhabitants based on social support.

As an external third party, GRET is an intermediator between the local players, inhabitants and authorities. In Port-au-Prince (Haiti) the water access system installed by GRET in the underprivileged neighbourhoods – which served 50 neighbourhoods and 800,000 people before the 2010 earthquake – foresaw that water would be managed by the Water Committee, a social player originating in the neighbourhoods, in liaison with the public water distribution company through a delegation contract, binding the public utility to supply the public standpipe. This system was supposed both to serve to bolster the legitimacy of the neighbourhoods and local organisations when confronting public authorities and reconcile the citizen with these authorities.

Town and city authorities must see it as their duty to serve the whole of their population. Getting the inhabitants to participate and providing them with social support is essential in ensuring that the projects will really improve lives and living. In one project conducted in the Martissant district of Port-au-Prince, which consisted in rehabilitating the Leclerc gully piping, the inhabitants impressed on GRET the necessity to bring in additional amenities for an improved living environment (footbridges, road, staircases, pavements, public spaces, etc.). These elements bettered living conditions in the district. GRET’s know-how consisted in being transparent, listening to and helping the inhabitants to formulate their expectations, managing oppositions and crises, and putting together solutions which everybody could accept.

A large part of the difficulties affecting the neighbourhoods is due to a lack of urban planning when they are created and extended. Conventional town/city planning philosophy is to plan before developing and building, but here this exercise has to be done after the event. The method consists in highlighting the assets and constraints of the area and suggesting solutions suited to the urban and social context. In the port city of Toamasina (Madagascar), GRET has produced an urban social analysis, a programme and a 15-year development plan on an area covering 7 “fokontany” (districts/neighbourhoods) and concerning 20,000 inhabitants (5 percent of the city). Estimated at €26,000,000, this plan is broken down into actions to be initiated 3, 5 and 10 years into the plan. All that remains is to provide it with city planning regulations and have it officially ratified so as to become a Plan urbain de détail (Pudé – Detailed Urban Plan), a document which is legally binding on third parties. In Port-au-Prince, after the 2010 earthquake, GRET insisted on the reconstruction first including planning procedures. The urban development plans for Martissant and Baillergeau, to which it contributed, were among the first to be got done. Today, no district reconstruction work can begin until a planning document corresponding to the standards set by the authorities and ratified by the multi-institutional steering committee has been obtained.

From the local to international summits: promoting rehabilitation

The international debate has evolved since the turn of this century. Most financial backers agree on the advantages of in-situ rehabilitation and condemn forced mass evictions spurred by big development projects. Use of the term “urban equity” as a theme of the 2014 WUF is proof of these advances, even if it would have been preferable that the more political notion of equality be chosen. Unfortunately, in the field, improvements are slow and one-off considering the scale of the needs. The political and financial arbitration carried out by the local government authorities in favour of informal neighbourhoods prove insufficient compared to the investments in major infrastructures and economic projects supported by sponsors. Learning lessons from past and present initiatives and debating on them – including internationally – helps to further the cause of these neighbourhoods and their inhabitants.

The French delegation in Medellin was a hundred or so strong, with civil society organisations in a minority as against the American and Latin-American organisations. France has an original and strong position internationally by defending decentralisation, the role of local government and strategic urban planning. After working on the international decentralisation and basic services guidelines, adopted by the board of governors of UN-Habitat in 2007 and 2009, it is putting its efforts into drawing up the guidelines on urban and territorial planning for the next meeting of UN-Habitat’s board of governors in April 2015. GRET was appointed to represent France at the meeting of world experts to work out the document in Medellín on 10 April, where it advocated its vision of what is at stake for the territories, societies, economies and environments of towns and cities in poor and underdeveloped countries. GRET also took part in a workshop organised by the Partenariat Français pour la ville et les territoires (PFVT – French Town/City and Territories Partnership), the French Foreign Affairs Ministry (MAE) and Cités et gouvernements locaux unis (CGLU – United Local Cities and Governments) on public urban project ownership. GRET had been deeply involved in the working groups organised by the PFVT to write out the ‘Orientations de l’aide française en faveur de la maitrise d’ouvrage publique locale’ (French Aid Orientations to Further Local Public Project Ownership’) endorsed by the PFVT and MAE.

In the words of Joan Clos, the Director of UN-Habitat, the World Urban Forum in Medellín, the best of the seven editions organised since 2002. The competition created by this year’s edition is linked to the town/city planning movement all over the world and to the succession of major events coming up in the next few years: redefining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), the Conference of the Parties on climate change (Cop 21, the 2015 conference, will be held in France) and the Habitat III conference – organised every 20 years – in 2016 (where the focus will be on sustainable towns/cities). GRET is taking a sustainable development approach oriented to serving popular neighbourhoods. It will continue to roll out its operations, systematise its working methods and reinforce the third environmental pillar in order to contribute to these major events.

For further information on GRET’s urban development projects in makeshift neighbourhoods