Cities for human development: a capability approach to city-making

Frediani, Alexandre Apsan (2018). 'Cities for Human Development: A Capability Approach to City-Making' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Recently there has been a series of renewed global urban agendas. From the UN, there has been the inclusion of an urban goal in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals as well as the agreement towards a New Urban Agenda led by UN-Habitat. Meanwhile transnational civil society networks have also been articulating demands around global commitments towards the ‘Right to the City’. While there is a lot of discussion about what kind of commitments these different initiatives propose, there is no doubt that there are a series of contestations over competing claims for how cities should be produced and for whom. Therefore, a key question of our times is how we approach these contestations. Who has the right to the city, and to what kind of city?

This book aims to contribute to this debate by interrogating city-making from a human development and capability perspective. This means understanding the changes taking place in cities in relation to how they affect people’s freedom to pursue the lives they value. It also implies that people should be the agents of city-making, and not passive recipients of urban development. Therefore, the book contributes to on-going debates associated to the application of ideas of justice in an urban development context.

From the field of critical urban theory, there have been authors articulating the potential contribution of Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum work in relation to the conceptualisation of justice and its implication to urban policy (Fainstein, 2010; Marcuse et al., 2009). However, these remained abstract, without a more in-depth examination and often providing a selective reading of the literature on the capability approach.

The growing literature on the capability approach has explored cases in urban contexts, but it has not explicitly and systematically tackled urban processes. This literature also makes very limited reference to debates taking place in the field of critical urban theory and urban planning and design. Furthermore, there is a lack of work exploring the practices, strategies and conditions of expanding capabilities in cities .

This book aims to address this gap by re-examining eight analytical elements that can bridge concepts and debates from these two fields: drivers, practices, aspirations, abilities, opportunities, agency and trajectories. These analytical elements are interrogated one in each chapter through the use of case studies exploring grassroots practices of city-making from eight different cities: Lagos (Nigeria), London (UK), Cape Town (South Africa), Salvador (Brazil), Kisumu (Kenya), São Paulo (Brazil) and Quito (Ecuador). These case studies have been selected based on the author’s experiences in the field of urban development, related to research, teaching and civic engagement activities.

The book argues that the capability perspective contributes to put people at the centre of urban development processes, and not profit. It argues that the capability approach can help to better understand who are the winners and losers of current changes taking place to cities. The book demonstrates how the capability approach can be applied to recognise and support the ongoing processes that are attempting to address urban inequalities.

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