The Link Between Inclusive Growth and Infrastructure: Q&A with John Rossant

August 21, 2015

From knowledge economy innovation to the rise of emerging markets, cities are the drivers of trends that define today and the outlook on tomorrow.

For this reason, cities’ potential to do something more—to foster inclusive growth— is as relevant now as it was when Jane Jacobs articulated it more than 50 years ago.

We spoke with John Rossant, Chairman of the New Cities Foundation, about the link between inclusivity and infrastructure — and the unique opportunities today’s urban planners have to foster inclusive growth.

Q: Let’s start with the basics: What does economic inclusion in a city look like?

A: Economic inclusion in cities at the most basic level means that there is a broad mix of income-earners and wealth in a single city, with no massive gap between the wealthiest and the poorest segments of the population. It also means, I think, that a city’s housing stock should be diverse, providing opportunities for home-ownership and home rental at different price points.

Speaking as a native New Yorker, I would say that postwar New York — post-war Manhattan, to be precise — until the 1980s was a good example of a more interesting, more diverse city than it is now. True, there were rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, but they were all on the same island.

John RossantQ: Why is it so important to understand the link between infrastructure and inclusivity?  

Probably the key word is “mobility”’ — both in the sense of getting from point A to point B in a city, but also in the sense of social mobility. A very necessary — though not alone sufficient — factor in promoting inclusiveness in any city is a decent, efficient and economical public transportation network. This is hugely important for cities in the developing world, which can often suffer from chronic underinvestment in infrastructure.

One could certainly make the case that cities like New York, Paris and London have been able to develop and prosper thanks in part to very well-developed public transportation infrastructure. This is a lesson for many mega-cities in the developing world. Jakarta, for example, is the second-largest city in Asia but lacks a decent mass transportation system. It is only now addressing this.

Q: What about the other side of that — is there a unique opportunity for urban planners looking to lay the foundations for new cities?

To an extent, new cities can rewrite the rules of urban development. If we are talking about true “new” cities, i.e., greenfield urban developments, then there can be real opportunities to build more inclusive cities from the outset — at least in the sense of spatial inclusiveness. For example, new cities present historic opportunities to build a public transportation exoskeleton before a city is actually built, which can allow a much greater integration of neighborhoods and much greater inclusivity. And building a transportation grid from the outset saves a huge amount of money and disruption down the line.

The New Cities Foundation organizes a fascinating and important event every year called Cityquest, which brings together the leaders of the world’s most important new cities like Songdo in Korea, Iskandar in Malaysia, Masdar in the UAE and a host of others. It takes place in Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Economic City on the coast of the Red Sea (KAEC), one of the most interesting and ambitious new city projects in the world.  One of the core convictions of this new generation of urban leaders is that planned new cities can escape some of the pitfalls of older, more established cities.

Q: Is there also an opportunity in some of the technological innovations available to 21st-century urban planners?

We are already seeing cities everywhere beginning to be transformed by the power of big data, geolocalization technologies and ubiquitous social media. Think about how Uber is transforming mobility in many cities. Seamless payment systems and multimodal transportation systems, for example, will utterly transform how people move around cities — and will hopefully enhance the degree of inclusiveness and social cohesion in the cities of the future.

 

For more detail on innovations in payments and infrastructure powering inclusivity, check out this study with key findings from Brazil, India, Singapore and Hong Kong.

 

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