Poverty in and unsustainability of urban areas in the Global South has been a major challenge to researchers and policy makers for a very long time. International and national urban policies still tend to operate at a very general level with policy makers having limited knowledge about the unequal distribution of opportunities, benefits, and harm within the urban population. Understanding of urbanisation is fragmented and research overwhelmingly focuses on conditions of slums at the expense of investigating specific local social, economic, and physical structures, and how they are changing, especially at the neighbourhood level.
Sustainability, prosperity, and resilience of cities, countries, and the world as a whole can only be achieved if we have a holistic and in-depth understanding of the complex issues we are dealing with, why they exist, and how they can be addressed effectively. We argue that such understanding should start with exploring such micro units as the neighbourhood: first, neighbourhood is the place where social policy is delivered, and second, it is the place that determines residents’ exposure to peace and security vs violence and harm, prosperity vs poverty and destitution, and opportunities vs disadvantages. However, despite the emphasis of the New Urban Agenda of UN-Habitat on maximising the benefits and minimising the harms of urbanisation for all, there is a lack of evidence for action at the time when evidence-based and cost-effective interventions are desperately needed.
At the Centre for Sustainable, Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC) we work to generate such understanding and evidence to tackle the challenges of social and economic unsustainability in fast-growing urban centres in Africa and Asia. To do so, we adopt a novel approach: instead of studying and/or comparing countries, we utilise an interdisciplinary, city- and neighbourhood-level lens to systematically investigate the complex connections and relationships between urban (SDG11), health (SDG3), and education (SDG4) challenges in neighbourhoods. Unlike the majority of studies, we also made a decision to shift from studying large cities to studying and comparing two cities in each country: one major national city and one ‘typical’ regional city. This approach allows us to draw comparisons from several dimensions: within country and region, between countries and regions, and between different economic development levels and types of cities and neighbourhoods. Profiles of a number of the cities that we work with have been published in a special issue of Environment and Urbanisation ASIA.
And we do not do it alone – for a more locally-driven, equitable, and effective approach, we formed an international consortium of nine research partners in eight countries: Bangladesh, China, India, the Philippines, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, and the UK. Our team of experts comes from a range of different fields including urban studies, architecture, design and planning, demography, education, health, law, and more. To support our ambitious collaborative project that runs from 2017 to the end of 2021, we received funding via UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).
To provide policy makers and planners with more localised, contextual, and specific responses to urban issues on the ground, we are working on three main packages:
(1) Sustainable cities and communities: we analyse the underlying social and economic forces of urban development and the changing internal structure of cities to understand the different neighbourhoods.
(2) Sustainable health and wellbeing: we assess the relationships between city and neighbourhood characteristics, health services, and the health and wellbeing of residents.
(3) Inclusive and equitable quality education and learning: we assess the provision and outcomes of formal and non-formal educational facilities and services to understand how education and continuous learning can contribute not only to economic prosperity but also to improved quality of life in communities, health and wellbeing, city governance, civic participation, and other aspects of cultural and social development, especially in challenging circumstances.