Looking back: What we learned in 2013

As 2013 draws to a close, it is a good opportunity to reflect on what we have learned from cities in the URB.im network during the last year. Some of our community managers discuss the benefits of increased citizen participation in the planning and implementation of urban initiatives. Others highlight the effectiveness of programs that build the capacity of youth and women to be agents for poverty alleviation. Many discuss how to ensure that the benefits of economic growth and urban improvement extend to the most marginalized residents.

Continue reading to learn more about lessons learned in Mumbai, Nairobi, Lagos, and Mexico City, and join the discussion to share your own in the comments below.

Mexico City
Carlin Carr

What 2013 taught India about including women in urban planning

Carlin Carr, Mumbai Community Manager


This time last year, a horrific event took place in India. A young girl and her male friend took a late-night bus ride in Delhi after a movie; it ended up being the girl's last. In the bus, she was gang raped and so brutally assaulted that even an emergency medical flight to Singapore couldn't save her. The incident sparked national and international outrage; protestors poured into the streets of India's major cities to force more stringent laws to protect women against violence.

Months later, a female photojournalist out on an assignment in an abandoned mill area in the center of Mumbai endured a similarly brutal assault and gang rape. As it turns out, the men had done this to ragpicker women in the area before, but few women, especially the poor, feel comfortable stepping forward. Mumbai has always been touted as a safe city for women, but incidents like these have rattled this sense of security.

While legal frameworks, training for police officers, and educating men are all key areas in reducing violence against women, urban planning also has a large role to play. For women to feel safe in India's urban environments, city planners need to ensure that appropriate infrastructure is in place to help women feel safer and more secure in — and to feel that they are a part of — urban India. Here are five key areas to address:

  • Transport: Women-only train cars have been a great addition in Mumbai; in Bangalore, sections of the buses also are reserved solely for women. These measures reserve safe spaces for women and signal that women are encouraged to travel in the city.
  • Lighting: Dark streets create an unwelcoming environment for women, and the lack of lighting also jeopardizes their safety. Streetlights are needed not only throughout main roads and thoroughfares, but also in informal settlements, where darkness hovers once the sun goes down.
  • Activity: Despite the antagonistic relationship that many Indian cities have toward street vendors, their presence brings a vitality that increases women's security. Delhi proposed an initiative last year to create vending areas near metro entrances. Initiatives of this type, particularly around transport stations, will go a long way in creating a city that is not only vibrant, but also safe.
  • Passageways: Although crossing roads in Mumbai is risky, the underground passageways that allow walkers to traverse busy intersections are much scarier, especially for women. Some in the city seem much friendlier than others, with good lighting and security officers posted, but many others are dark and dank.
  • Sanitation: We recently reported on the abysmal toilet situation in Mumbai, where there is only one toilet seat for every 1,800 women. Even when there are toilets available, women and young girls often have to walk great distances or choose a dark and secluded area in order to have some measure of privacy. Providing proper sanitation preserves people's dignity, but it also will go a long way toward reducing the risk of violence against women during this necessary act.

Many of these measures are low-hanging fruit in the larger urban planning needs of the city. They are economically feasible and don't require large infrastructure overhauls. Brighter, more vibrant and welcoming cities will benefit the entire citizenry and go a long way toward making women feel comfortable engaging in their urban environment.

Photo: erin



Carlin Carr's picture

In reading the thorough wrap-up from Nairobi of the election year and its aftermath, it had me reflecting on what's to come in India this year. In 2014, voters here will go to the polls to elect a new leader, and it will be interesting to watch what promises will be made and what will be fulfilled in the months and years afterward. It seems like there has been very little movement on the promises made to Kenyans.

What also struck me was the end of Maria's article, which focused on Enrique Bentancourt's ideas on the need for greater citizen participation in the decision-making process and a reverse of the top-down initiatives. I've been thinking a lot about this, especially after visiting a few organizations this year who focus on upgrading slums by empowering citizens to know their rights and to lobby their local representatives to make change happen. What's even more interesting is that it was almost always the women of the community.

Also, there has been an ongoing "uprising" over the city's Development Plan, which maps out the land use maps for the next 20 years. The Urban Design Research Institute called citizens together to find the mismappings the city did, which would have long-lasting negative impacts on the city if, say a park, was designated as a commercial site. The movement has forced the city into more transparency with the process, and recently, another milestone was reached: The People's Vision for Mumbai's Development Plan was created. Here's a really interesting article on the new document, the history of people's movements and what kinks still need to be ironed out of the People's document: http://kafila.org/2013/12/17/peoples-participation-in-planning-mumbai-hu....

Katy Fentress's picture

It's so difficult not to hope in the run up to elections. We want to hope that the promises will be fulfilled, we want to hope that the people running for elections do have our best interests at heart.
And so its so frustrating when we see that the promises that were made are so slow to materialise!

That said I do not want to give myself up to complete cynicism at least with regards to Nairobi's new Mayor Dr Kidero... the mess he was confronted with was huge and it would have taken someone superhuman to make an impact in under ten months... we'll keep on watching and reporting back.... hopefully he'll put his money where his mouth is!

Katy Fentress
URB.IM - Nairobi Community Manager

Katy, your comment is all too familiar with what we are facing in Cairo at the moment. With the Constitutional referendum just around the corner there is a definite sense of distrust that these elections and promises by the interim government are going to actually result in any change. It has gotten to the point where many people want to vote yes to the constitution even if it is incomplete just to get the ball rolling.

Like you I am hopeful that this entire process, long and tedious as it is, will be positive in the long run. I believe that it is better to take more time now and set out a proper plan and vision for the country rather than find quick solutions for every issue as it comes up.

Howaida Kamel
Community Manager, Cairo | URB.im

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture

I have to agree citizen participation is very important and not only to effect change and for better planning like in the protests against rape and call for better safety city measures for women in Mumbai and feasibility studies as in the remapping exercise but also as change makers themselves.

A lot if pressure is put on local office to improve social and economic conditions and rightfully so as it's their duty. However, we need to acknowledge inability of government to know it all or fix it all. Sustainable and progressive change only comes through active citizen participation, creation and work of civil societies all contribute to improving economic and social conditions like seen with the organizations in Lagos creating job opportunities and empowering the marginalized.


I love your comments about the need for citizen participation in Lagos; just like the strength that comes in numbers, residents can be a huge force when they work together with government for better planning and change.

Could you comment on the successful structures in government you have seen that allow for this formal citizen participation, or those that you would recommend or envision? It often seems that citizen action is more of a reflex and that action takes place on a very local scale (ex: in response to Makoko slum demolitions), rather than as an integrated planning strategy between government and the populace. What do you think, and what opportunities do you see for this in 2014?

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture

Thank you for your comments, you are right often, citizen participation is in reaction to a new policy or sudden occurrence as opposed to proactive.

There are various structures put in place that allow citizens to participate in Lagos, there is a state town hall meeting every 100 days, and a district one as well the questions is do the people attend these meetings. Its an opportunity for local heads to put forth city and state projects, citizens to have inputs and suggestions. The more common one is the recent traffic radio in Lagos, while this is recent and fairly specific to transportation it is evolving into a medium to address various concerns. Its a crowd sourcing platform for traffic updates, traffic violations, suggestions on improving road usage and citizen contributions for dealing with urban transportation violations and planning.

However, my focus for active citizenship really is on citizens not waiting for the state/city to create these platforms to encourage their participation, we should actively go out there, we know the issues, create the forums or platforms ourselves and lobby for change if you will, or at the very least make use of the platforms created. Its definitely great when city authority creates participatory platforms, however, they will create based on the challenges they are aware of, which more often than not is limited compared to the challenges city dwellers face in reality.

I hear you. I would say that I see the value of leveraging existing participatory platforms (and trying to make them as fully representative as possible), and also creating the missing platforms, when and where they are needed. Depending on the issue and the level of interest, there are plenty of ways where residents, activists, everyday citizens can come together and take action in their own community without waiting for government-sponsored platforms or support.

From a planning perspective or a systems perspective though, I also see the importance in these groups engendering change that is sustainable -- that at some point or another, earns government recognition, or partnership, or collaboration. At some point, I think they should work with government. I appreciate the needs and action that takes place outside of the scope of government. I bet we think similarly that there certain benefits though that come along with (successfully) pushing to work with the government -- mobilizing community action, then pushing for official recognition, then demonstrating the seriousness of a particular issue to the government to force them to respond in line with community residents' demands. What do you think?

In considering this, I am thinking specifically of an initiative in Port Harcourt, where the Rivers State Government has demolished homes and other structures and threatened to do so again. The initiative (People Live Here) is centered around increasing community education and voice, community mapping and government engagement to formalize the existence of these communities threatened with demolition. A key challenge and focus for the project is in finding ways to work with the Rivers State Government to get the communities' demands heard and their presence formally recognized. That's the challenge, though, how to achieve that. The initiative is supported by DFID, Amnesty International and some other international actors, so not at all an entirely homegrown initiative, but still, interesting to look at: http://www.people-live-here.org/city/. I'm sure it will be interesting to follow in 2014!

Olatawura Ladipo-Ajayi's picture


Programs like people-live-here is exactly the type of citizen participation I was referring to, projects that are initiated outside the scope of platforms created by the government which then garners support from bodies and government agencies. We are definitely in one accord regarding the forms and need for active citizen participation in developing cities such as Lagos.

I am intrigued by your project and look forward to hearing about the impacts and progress being made in Port Harcourt. Too often demolitions occur leaving the residents in jeopardy like recently in Ogun state. It is a project definitely worth following and looking into for lessons for Lagos city in 2014! You should hear from us soon :)

María Fernanda Carvallo's picture

Al final de este año, el aprendizaje nos hace reflexionar sobre el papel de la gente en su desarrollo, en el sentido de que su participación es esencial para definir cuales son sus necesidades por satisfacer para promover un desarrollo local. En este mismo sentido, el desarrollar habilidades y capacidades en la gente es un factor que dispara el que las personas puedan desarrollar estrategias de vida. Todos estos elementos deben de ser considerados en la intervención de los proyectos sociales, visualizando cual sería el impacto de estos en la población.

Glad to hear things sound like they are progressing in Nairobi, long may it continue. Too often it seems like one step forward, two steps back. Love the idea of Machowood! Too funny!

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