Navigating the grid in the "world-class city": poverty, gender, and access to services in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science


For the past two decades, across South Asia, planners, policy-makers - and property-speculators - have been energetically engaged in efforts to remake cities as 'world class.' Yet these years have seen the deepening of the urban pathologies that such efforts hoped to redress; as a 2016 World Bank report observes, over 130 million people in the region now live in informal urban settlements "characterized by poor construction, insecure tenure and underserviced plots." The poor are not simply left behind in the rush to make the world-class city; rather, our earlier research shows that the forced displacements, that attend world-class citymaking initiatives, often exacerbate problems in accessing urban resources and infrastructural services, particularly for the marginalised.

We have also found that, in managing and mitigating the interruptions and upheavals caused by urban removals and dislocations, innovative forms of urban practice, political engagement and creative collaboration have emerged. These, often in partnership with CBOs and NGOs, can lead to pro-poor urban outcomes. Drawing on the strong collaborative foundations in earlier work on urban housing and infrastructures in Mumbai, Lahore and Colombo, we will focus on the efforts of the urban poor to access vital services (water, transport, communications), while attending to the ways in which these efforts intersect with the dynamics that shape patterns of access to urban land and housing. Our project will ask: under what conditions do the formal and informal communicative channels, personal connections, and 'phatic labour' (Elyachar 2005), by which everyday access to urban grids is enacted, encourage pro-poor outcomes?

We will work closely with local academic partners in this first phase of the project, but we will also mobilize non-academic partners, including arts-based activists and community groups, planners and politicians, in a series of community engagement events in each city. The goal of each event will be to create workable ideas for improving access to services. To this we add strong South-South collaboration: we will hold regional workshops each year in Colombo, which has the advantage of being equally accessible to Pakistani and Indian colleagues, bringing together project partners and stakeholders from all three sites to share their best ideas.

Planned Impact

This project sets out to reduce urban poverty in South Asia by providing workable, context-sensitive, solutions to the problems poor communities encounter in accessing key infrastructural services.Working with partners in three cities - Lahore, Colombo and Mumbai - we will engage community activists as well as policy-makers through a series of workshops and other engagement events through the life of the project. Annual full-team events in Colombo will allow us to share experience of what works across national boundaries.

We will achieve this by working across a strong set of partnerships: with the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS) in Lahore, Law and Society Trust (LST) and Open University (OUSL) in Colombo, and the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies (KRVIA) in Mumbai. Annual workshops in each city will engage with a wide range of interested parties, from community activists, to government planners and local politicians. Full-team workshops in Colombo will allow for discussions of transposable workable solutions across the team, and dissemination to non-academic audiences in Sri Lanka and beyond

The project also has a strong commitment to capacity-building. As well as bringing new skills into local research organizations, we will be running field visits, and mobile studios, with groups of students, many of them the engineers, planners and architects of tomorrow, while also developing teaching materials that can embed firmly in future curricla.


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