Commentary: What We Mean By “Inclusive Cities”

| 01/28/2013 3:45pm
Rhonda Douglas

A vendor plying his trade on a beach in Rio de Janeiro. Photo credit: Julian Luckham

In much of the world, informal workers are not the exception, but the rule. The majority—in some cases, the vast majority—of urban workers in most developing countries are informal workers. They produce goods in their homes and sell food or household items in the streets; they drive taxis and tuk tuks, and perform hard labor on construction sites; they gather, sort and recycle what others throw away. In these and other ways, they earn livelihoods that sustain entire families while making a real contribution to economic growth and GDP.

The efforts of these legitimate economic agents are vitally important to cities and citizens. Their contributions are also social and environmental. And yet most urban plans, policies, laws and regulations (and the officials who enact them) are blind to these workers, and deaf to their needs and demands.

For more than four years, the Inclusive Cities Project has been working to remedy this situation. Inclusive Cities is a partnership of membership-based organizations (MBOs) of the working poor, international alliances of these MBOs, and technical support organizations. The coordinating partner of the project is Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). The partners share a belief that to reduce urban poverty, we must reverse the current exclusionary trend taking place in so many modernizing cities and instead foster (as the project’s name insists) inclusive cities.

An inclusive city is one that values all people and their needs equally. It is one in which all residents—including the most marginalized of poor workers—have a representative voice in governance, planning, and budgeting processes, and have access to sustainable livelihoods, legal housing and affordable basic services such as water/sanitation and an electricity supply.

Cities like this, however, are not achievable until informal workers can take their rightful place at the decision-making table, voice their demands and be heard. The needs and demands of urban informal workers are not extravagant. Home-based workers require, above all else, low-cost, safe housing and zoning regulations that value their work by allowing commercial activities in residential areas. Affordable and reliable basic services—especially water, sanitation and electricity—are essential. (Interestingly, slum dwellers often pay more for these services per unit than middle-class consumers and formal factories.)

Informal street vendors want to co-exist—legally and peaceably—with formal retail areas, providing diversity for consumers and tourists. To invest in their businesses, traders first need security of tenure. Access to storage units and electricity would allow more sophisticated trading activities, while infrastructure such as shelters, toilets and water would provide a better, more hygienic experience for both workers and consumers. First and foremost, however, this informal sector wants an end to the harassment and seizure of goods by authorities that is far too common in most cities. Continuous evictions of street vendors are expensive and time consuming for local authorities and have devastating impacts on trader livelihoods. In addition, they rarely work for long, as most municipal authorities can attest.

Informal waste pickers want to be recognized for the significant environmental contribution they have long made. In many cities in developing countries, these workers supply most or all of the solid waste collection, providing a public sanitation service at no or low cost to the municipal budget. By recycling much of what they collect, waste pickers reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and waste in landfills. However, across all continents, privatization of waste and disposal techniques such as incineration and waste-to-energy schemes are threatening wastepicker livelihoods and the environment. For social and environmental reasons, we should all join these workers in demanding better integration of informal waste pickers into municipal systems, rather than exclusion and privatization.

Including informal workers in municipal plans is not just possible, it is a better way to create sustainable, prosperous, inclusive and vibrant cities. But good planning practices that support livelihoods share a common element: workers and their representatives are integrally involved. Doing it right is a matter of planning with, rather than planning for, informal workers.

Rhonda Douglas is the Global Projects Director for WIEGO, the coordinating partner for the Inclusive Cities Project. Find out more at and