All good in the hood? Why neighbourhood and collaboration matters for sustainable cities

All good in the hood? Why neighbourhood and collaboration matters for sustainable cities

This blog was written by Professor Ya Ping Wang, Director of SHLC

Every week, 1.4 million people move to cities and by 2050 70 per cent of the global population will live in cities, say the United Nations. With the number of people living in urban areas increasing daily, cities are facing unprecedented demographic, environmental, economic, social and spatial challenges.

On 31 October, the global community marked World Cities Day, which helped to focus attention on these issues. But they are issues which should command attention every day of the year.

That is a call to which the GCRF Centre for Sustainable Healthy and Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods (SHLC) is already responding. Sustainable cities depend on a population with resilience and resources that health and learning brings. Equally, health and well-being, and lifelong learning opportunities, depend on the development of sustainable cities and the neighbourhoods within them. At SHLC, we are investigating the interconnection of urban, health and education challenges to better understand what makes a sustainable neighbourhood.


Neighbourhood matters

Films like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Favela Rising” have brought to the public eye images of the slums of big, developing world cities. But what of other communities? They may be slightly less poor but they still have their own problems, lacking services and the other ingredients of a productive urban life. At SHLC we are working to fill this gap through capacity strengthening activities and comparative studies of different neighbourhoods across 14 African and Asian cities.

If you just look at a city as a whole, you will miss the full picture. So, instead, we are focusing on the neighbourhoods inside cities to explore how cities are changing bit by bit. We are not only looking at poorer neighbourhoods, we are looking at all different types of neighbourhoods across the whole city – from slums to gated communities and everything in between. Where do the poor people live, where do the rich people live, and what about the people in between? And, most crucially, how do they live?

Khulna Mixed commercial area along KDA Avenue.JPG

Mixed commercial development, KDA Avenue. Khulna, Bangladesh Credit: Irfan Shakil, Khulna University

Our international team of experts are studying urban transformations in both large and small cities in the following countries: South Africa – Cape Town and Johannesburg; Tanzania – Dar es Salaam and Ifakara; Rwanda – Kigali and Huye; India – Delhi and Madurai; Bangladesh – Dhaka and Khulna; China – Chongqing and Datong; Philippines – Manila and Batangas.

We know that urbanisation is a driving force for economic growth and social change in Africa and Asia. However, our latest research reports show that the speed of urbanisation varies from country to country. After several decades of rapid expansion, urbanisation in India, China and South Africa is in fact beginning to slow down, while larger capital cities in smaller developing countries continue to grow very fast. Understanding, and comparing, neighbourhoods within these cities is key to tackling global urban challenges.

Collaboration Matters

In the past, international collaboration tended to mean experts from the developed world telling developing countries how to build cities using the ‘Global North’ experience.

This approach is not suitable. Cities in developing country have grown under very different economic, political and social conditions. Many cities, like Delhi, Cape Town and Manila, have very distinctive and unique features, which older industrial cities in the West do not share.

At SHLC, we are bringing developing country researchers together. We are not just sharing knowledge between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’, we are focussing on knowledge transfer and sharing learning experiences between developing countries.


Discussing neighbourhoods at the SHLC capacity-strengthening workshop. Credit: Gail Wilson, University of Glasgow

For example, our case study cities in China, India and South Africa – the so-called ‘BRICS’ countries and emerging economies – have developed quite differently and at different rates. But their neighbourhoods show some similar features. Relatively poorer developing countries, like the Philippines, Bangladesh, Tanzania and Rwanda, have a different level of economic development, so their cities are facing slightly different challenges. By comparing similarities and differences between all of our case study cities we will gain greater understanding and insight into how cities work and how we can make the city work better for all.


Multidisciplinarity Matters

Urbanisation is a human activity. The city is a place for production, a place for living and a place for education and place for politics. It is a complicated human system and process. If we were only to do our neighbourhood research from one aspect, we would always face limitations.

In the past, a lot of ‘sustainable’ cities research has focused very much on environmental costs like pollution. Our research goes further and pays more attention to the social and economic sustainability of communities from a variety of different disciplines.

IMG_0797 - Hanging out waiting for customers at the hair salon, Alexandr....JPG

Hanging out waiting for customers at the hair salon. Alexandra, Johannesburg, South Africa Credit: Ivan Turok, Human Sciences Research Council

We know that for a city to be ‘sustainable’ it tends to be healthy: healthy people tend to learn better, and to be healthy and educated you need a sustainable environment to live in. So to examine these complicated neighbourhoods and cities from a combined multi-disciplinary approach is much better than just looking at the city from an urban planning perspective.


If we are to achieve the sustainable development goals in an increasingly urban world, then we must understand what makes our cities, and our neighbourhoods within them, sustainable, healthy and learning places to live. At SHLC, that is the questions we are hoping to address, not just for World Cities Day, but every day of the year.


If you’re interested to find out more about the SHLC project please visit their new website, sign up to their newsletter and follow them on Twitter.

SHLC is funded via UK Research and Innovation as part of the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund.