The challenge of creating inclusive cities

Renu Kholsa


Cities across the globe are becoming increasingly unequal; poor design coupled with overcrowding has resulted in an increasing number of people pushed out to living in slums and environmentally-degraded neighbourhoods.  The paper argues that as economic growth does not always translate to the common good, cities need to be inclusive in order to build social cohesion. Inclusiveness is about building a collective stake in the city’s planning, resources and sustainability. The act of participation builds shared values and a common purpose.  It argues that inclusive cities must do two things – level up, and become smart – and offers examples of projects from a Delhi-based NGO, which aim to address challenges in building inclusiveness in the context of urban low-income communities.

Participation helps nurture social capital and incubate social relationships that maximise the notion of ‘commons’. However, it is highly complex. Its trilemma consists of:

  1. Poor conceptualisation within public discourse and subsequent operationalization
  2. Half-hearted application of its methodologies whose rationale have never been analysed
  3. It’s anecdotal, hard-to-quantify and therefore evidence of its impact is arguable.

Collective urbanism emerges from three disciplines: social, economics and planning.  The literature focuses on: unique role individuals play in decision-making; processes of organisation and involvement that transfer power to the people; structures for collaboration; and the dialogue and systems for consensus building.  It raises a number of questions:

  • What is a community and who are its genuine representatives, particularly in poor neighbourhoods?
  • What tools are applicable in what contexts to get real community engagement? How does one preserve place’?
  • How does one identify and build on a community’s resources in development planning, enhancing acceptance of proposals and effectively implementing neighbourhood improvement programmes?
  • What human capabilities are needed in local governments and practitioners for building communities?
  • How does participative planning impact the practitioners themselves?

Divergence between insiders and outsiders, originating from financial or political power promotes or restrains their abilities to choose how and where they live, and maintains inequities. Reasons for lack of participation from the poor include desperate poverty and the need to earn, the informality of place and the lack of necessary paper (voter or ID cards, for example). Genuine participation is about negating the subtle and overt forms of exclusion, but often remains stuck in the realm of information giving or consent-taking, which do not result in partnerships or the sharing of power and control. The negotiating capabilities of poor communities depend on how they experience the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion.

Inclusive cities need to be equitable and smart. The former is about equal access to all services and opportunities; the latter is aspirational and is about data wiring, analytics and innovation. Where these two exist, inclusion will be inevitable and the outcomes, sustainable. ‘Equismart’ cities recognise that working with people to generate solutions is critical to making them work.  This requires unscrambling information and making policies transparent so people can make appropriate choices and engage in public policy decision-making systems, and removing obstacles that thwart community-led development both for established groups and the dispossessed.


Khosla, R. (2016). Levelling up: The challenge of creating inclusive cities. ORF occasional paper 94. Delhi: Observer Research Foundation.