Urban Vitality in a Global Context

Dr. Jan Fransen.

This year, it has been 60 years since the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS), located on the 14th floor of the Mandeville building, was founded. In November the institute will celebrate its 60th anniversary with the conference ‘Empowering Cities and Citizens – learning and co-creating in an urbanizing world’, for which it will team up with the initiative Vital Cities and Citizens of Erasmus University. The conference will take place on the 6th and 7th of November. During these days speakers will shed light on hot topics and wicked problems concerning cities worldwide. Dr Jan Fransen, the Deputy Director of IHS, shares his perspective on urban development and the role of IHS in the analysis of urban challenges.

Mr Fransen, you have over 20 years of experience with urban development, having worked in a plethora of countries such as Albania, China, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, India, Indonesia and many more. How do you differentiate between vital cities and less vital ones?

‘First of all, cities can be defined as vital when their citizens are vital. They are the fundament of a vibrant city. Vitality is a process which depends on the context and thus many different factors. Therefore, it is not possible to simply transport lessons learnt from so-called vital cities to less vital ones and believe they will yield the same results. However, even though there is not one formula for urban vitality, vital cities often have certain trademarks. In vital cities, (local) governments have ensured equal access to education and healthcare for all its citizens. Furthermore, authorities have achieved the prevention or elimination of the ghettoizing of neighbourhoods.’

In other words: inequality can negatively influence the vitality of a city. Unfortunately, according to certain research, inequality in cities is more likely to increase compared to rural parts of a country. Should citizens consider relocating to those areas?

‘There is not one simple answer to that question as cities are actually more likely to diminish absolute poverty. They are able to offer better services and opportunities compared to rural areas. People who belong to the urban poor benefit from this and are thus better off than those who belong to the rural poor. For instance, it is more likely that poor citizens will find work in a city or have access to education, which can enable their social mobility. This is possible, because cities can offer these services at lower costs and create more possibilities and chances for people than rural areas. This applies in particular to cities in developing countries. Yet, there is indeed a paradox, considering inequality in cities also has a tendency of increasing.’

How can this be explained?

‘In cities, a relatively small group of people – who can be defined as the highly-educated creative core – benefits from the opportunities which cities offer, more so than any other urban group. They cherry-pick the best of a city; using innovation systems while absorbing the latest knowledge and sharing it among their peers. This can result in more innovations or even superprofits. Urbanisation can thus contribute to decreasing absolute poverty while at the same time increasing inequality.’

Does this tendency apply to both developed as well as developing countries?

‘In developing countries, urban inequality – related to unequal access to or use of the knowledge economy – is even more prevalent. Yet, interestingly enough, on a global level the overall inequality between countries has reduced over the years. This is due to the fact that countries have become less homogenous. China is a good example of this: Shanghai and certain rural areas couldn’t differ more on a social and economic level.’

What would your advice be to developing countries in order to reduce inequality within their country?

‘Developing countries shouldn’t simply copy successful economic concepts which have proved to be fruitful in developed countries. This happens a lot as it is believed to contribute to economic prosperity. These days, for instance, many developing countries try to establish an ICT sector, based on the Silicon Valley concept in the USA. Enormous investments are made without generating convincing results. Moreover, the technological sector actually contributes to an increase in inequality as it excludes people who lack the specific knowledge that is needed to participate. I would therefore advise developing countries to focus on their own strong assets. Indonesia, for instance, has a solid industry creating artisanal products. Sustainable furniture or other commodities are manufactured in a climate-neutral way. Indonesia can thus easily compete with producers in developed countries who still have to make large investments in order to produce in a climate-neutral way. Sometimes developing countries actually benefit from their disadvantaged position in certain areas. Countries that didn’t have landlines, for instance, immediately implemented mobile networks. They simply skipped a step and this has turned out to be beneficial in terms of cost efficiency.’   

What other strategies can governments devise to reduce inequality?

‘Stimulating the active participation of citizens and addressing them in the right way appears to be important. In Brazil, for instance, the government has a so-called participatory budget. Citizens can apply for this in order to improve their neighbourhood. This policy turns out to work very well. In a similar vein, the government in South Africa has devised a programme, which has been executed by a local NGO, to help unemployed people set up small businesses. They have used smart and direct communication strategies in order to engage people in the right way and stimulate change, which has resulted in less inequality.’

One of the wicked problems which will be discussed during the conference in November is the climate issue. Are you optimistic or pessimistic when it concerns finding solutions for this global challenge?

‘I have to admit that it is really not easy to resolve the issue of global warming and its effects on people and nature. However, there are positive developments in this field. A good example of this is the Dutch floral industry. Due to European regulations, the Dutch floral industry has made a transition to a more climate-neutral way of producing. The industry was given sufficient time to make the necessary investments and changes. Consequently, this has stimulated innovations which in turn have resulted in a higher profit and an improved competitive position. This rather complex transition has worked out well, because conditions have been good: the industry was able to collaborate with partners, including businesses from other economic industries, knowledge institutes and the government.’

Within the Department of Public Administration of the School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB) there is a lot of research on wicked problems and urban issues. IHS often collaborates with ESSB. What does this collaboration entail?

‘Together with the Department of Public Administration of ESSB we have recently launched a new Master’s programme: Urban Governance. Students of this programme will receive the best of both worlds: thorough theoretical knowledge provided by the researchers of ESSB and more practical insights related to urban governance offered by IHS. At IHS we combine theory and practice and try to contribute to devising solutions. In order to train students in a hands-on mentality, we have developed many learning games. They enable students to apply the knowledge they have gained in practical, fictional settings. Students are very enthusiastic about them. IHS distinguishes itself by its knowledge of urban issues on a global scale. Consequently, we are good at making international comparisons. We will continue doing so for yet another 60 years!’