The case for social cities

Environmental disasters, a worldwide pandemic, looming recession and political turmoil shape Asia’s metropolises, making it clear why future cities need to be social ones.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both the shortcomings in urban infrastructure as well as the creativity and resilience of local communities in cities across Asia. The most vulnerable of the urban population were most affected by this crisis. Nonetheless, local volunteers, informal economy workers and other community members took up the challenge and contributed to sustaining services, lifting up the economy and bolstering solidarity.

This corresponds with this year’s World Cities Day theme of “Valuing our Communities and Cities”, which points out the special role of informal community networks in providing public services and increasing resilience in cities in times of need. However, to build truly sustainable cities the value of communities needs to be recognized beyond crises as well. This is why FES Asia has been working on conceptualizing and supporting the development of a social city.

What is a social city?

A social city is people-oriented and developed by means of a participatory approach. The needs of all residents are considered in urban planning and policy-making, making it a city that is inclusive, just, safe, with a high quality of life and equal access to services and opportunities. Cities are not only important drivers of economic growth, but provide social welfare, like education and housing. The goal of social cities is to limit social segregation, increase social cohesion and facilitate public participation to better deal with urban challenges.

What challenges need to be addressed?

The cities of Asia have been influenced by rapid urbanization, the privatization of public spaces and an increasingly technocratic approach to infrastructure planning. This has led to urban sprawl, socio-economic segregation and cities that fail to meet the needs of their residents, not to mention effectively tackle health or environmental issues. This has become increasingly evident during the most recent crises.

One of the most pressing issue of our time, climate change, is transforming the environment our cities are built in. After having just overcome the second wave of COVID-19, central Vietnam was recently hit by two storms that brought rainfall, flooding and landslides. Around 90,000 people were forced to evacuate and the scale of the natural disaster, killing more than a hundred people, surprised even the residents of the disaster-prone area.

Inclusivity - sharing the city

A social city is inclusive, meaning it allows every citizen, regardless of their background, to participate in its social, economic, cultural and political opportunities. This includes planning urban transport systems to be accessible and convenient for everyone, including people with disabilities. It also means providing social housing to the poor and supporting informal economy workers, since they provide essential public services like recycling waste and selling food.

Collaboration – creating the city

A social city fosters collaboration between civil-society actors. Even with limited resources, residents and civil-society organizations have shown their ability to collaborate to positively impact their local community during the Corona crisis. In Myanmar, these groups raised awareness, organized food donations and sold masks at cheaper prices. In Vietnam, civil-society actors donated food, masks, and even invented a “rice ATM” to support poor households with free helpings of up to 3kg rice a day.

Participation - transforming the city

A social city is a city that allows for citizens to participate in planning processes. As recent protests on the streets of Hong Kong and Bangkok have shown, citizens are using public spaces to voice their opinions and show discontent. To transform a city into a social city, citizen participation shouldn’t be limited to formal processes. Residents should have forums to debate policies related to urban issues as well as make use of streets, parks and city squares to vote with their feet.

Constructing a social city

Smart technological solutions are often viewed as a way to solve the various urban challenges, the most recent example being two healthcare apps developed by the Vietnamese government to both gather and spread information related to the coronavirus pandemic. But without the cooperation of citizens in downloading and using the apps, as well as actively supporting other COVID-19-related regulations, this measure would not have been effective. In this case, the issue of data protection might limit public cooperation as well as transferability. In other cases, like using smart technologies for waste management, a lack of expertise or regulatory pressure might impede implementation.

Cities need to empower their citizens to be a part of the solution by constructing social cities that allow for inclusivity, collaboration and participation. The increased quality of life will foster solidarity across different groups of society as well as free-up space for the creativity needed for innovation in our cities. That way social cities can improve the capacity of citizens and thereby, cities to not only survive, but take on challenges, without destroying the environment or further increasing inequalities.

Franziska Nicolaisen is working as a freelance consultant on topics of urbanization and education in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. She is writing her Masters thesis at the University Passau on sustainable urban development in Vietnam.

FES Asia

Bringing together the work of our offices in the region, we provide you with the latest news on current debates, insightful research and innovative visual outputs on the future of work, geopolitics, gender justice, and social-ecological transformation.