THE BLOG
10/16/2012 06:15 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

The Urban Poor, Climate Change and the Future of Cities Around the World

Most people now recognize that the unfolding dangers of climate change demand worldwide attention. But we should also be aware of the opportunities that exist within climate change adaptation to improve and transform some of the most vulnerable urban communities today.

On September 17, as part of a panel hosted by CHF International and the U.S. Green Building Council, Brian English, CHF's Director for Program Innovation, discussed how we can "future proof" cities, releasing an issue brief detailing how including the urban poor in planning and decision-making processes is crucial to developing more resilient cities.

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Slum dwellers, the poorest of the poor in ballooning mega-cities around the world, are living on the edge physically, economically, and politically: in coastal cities, on riverbanks, in hazard-prone areas, without rights to their land, with little savings, without identity or a right to their cities. They also represent the communities that will be hit hardest by climate change, placing them on the front lines of the scramble to adapt and mitigate its impacts.

CHF's recent experiences in India provide a useful lesson about the value, and measurable impact, of planning not "for," but with the urban poor in one of the world's most populated regions.

Near Mumbai, the city of Pune is the eighth largest metropolis in India with a population of about five million people -- and 1 million of them live in slums. By 2025, the population of the Pune-Mumbai "mega region" is expected to hit nearly 50 million people.

Just as they have in many cities around the world, in Pune slums are growing. In the absence of affordable housing, newcomers to Pune found shelter in squatter settlements, typically on land unsuitable or unattractive to real estate developers. These communities lack basic services. For example, thousands of slum households in Pune have no access to sanitation facilities and must resort to open defecation.

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In 2007, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's department of Special Initiatives, CHF started a program called SCALE- UP in India and Ghana, designed to improve living conditions and incomes of these vulnerable populations, thereby contributing to their resilience.

One project under SCALE-UP took place in Pune, India where we helped support both local governments and the urban poor in exploring the conditions of their communities in order to take action -- a skill that will be increasingly needed in the face of climate change. We engaged 5,000 volunteer slum dwellers to survey the socio-economic conditions of their peers across the city. Entering this information into a Geographic Information System (GIS) that we developed with the local government, we then gave back the data to community volunteers and taught them how to organize neighborhood action plans supported by their findings. In two years, having mobilized their own resources and those of the local government, 130 slum communities in Pune implemented projects that they wanted, and on their terms. The improvements included a solid waste management program, better water connections, sanitation access, and the development of renewable energy sources.

During this same period, the Pune city authorities began implementing a disaster management plan as part of a climate change adaptation strategy. They put in place programs to restore natural drainage, reduce river pollution and encroachment, and extend bridges. The city also introduced property tax incentives to encourage households to use rainwater harvesting. Flooding decreased in the city, and Pune has been recognized for the tangible results they achieved.

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But even more importantly, the city's leaders should also be recognized for their progressive approaches towards working with their marginalized slum communities. In 2010, I had the chance to see first hand the impacts of the programs we implemented with the Pune Municipal Corporation and meet with city officials. It is clear that many leaders within the city government share our approach to creating lasting impacts: poor and vulnerable communities must be included in and empowered by solutions. The vulnerability of slum communities has by no means been solved yet in Pune, but by championing this approach forward, we know that there will be a legacy of empowerment behind every brick and mortar solution.

The urban poor are incredibly resourceful populations, who have their own resources, networks, and the proven capacity to save and invest in the betterment of their communities, if only given the chance. It's up to us to offer it. Climate change creates a stimulus for action; we must ride that momentum to help city governments revisit the vulnerability of these communities and reimagine solutions that improve livelihoods and living conditions.