The social city

District Development and Social Urbanism

The concentration of social, structural and economic problems in individual urban districts poses great challenges for cities, although there are considerable regional differences both in the forms they assume and in the framework conditions in developing countries, emerging economies and industrialised countries. Larger and larger sections of the population are being excluded from participating in economic and social life. Holistic approaches are required to address this exclusion. This is the only way for cities to promote equal opportunities for the inhabitants of different urban districts and enable a sustainable development of the urban district and the city as a whole.

Contributions can be made to sustainability both at district and at overall city level. Here, cities in Europe are mainly oriented on the guiding concept of the spatially compact European City that has various uses and integrates social and cultural aspects. Cities outside Europe are testing other innovative concepts that correspond to their local context, such as the city of Medellín in Colombia, which is making socially compatible investments in its urban infrastructure under the guiding notion of “social urbanism”.

In addition, given a tendency of growing income disparities among the population in developing countries and emerging economies as well as in industrialised countries, cities have to focus on maintaining a social balance, also to ensure social peace in the city. Here, the “Right to the City” is an important concept aimed at providing all citizens with equal access to the urban opportunities and correspondingly requires investments in social infrastructure and institutions working together closely with the private sector. 

Disadvantaged districts in in developing countries and emerging economies can assume very different forms, for example as dilapidated inner cities, neglected high-rise housing estates or informal settlements without public utility infrastructure or urban land titles. Widespread poverty and violence is characteristic of these areas. In many places, civil societies have been formed to address deficiencies at a political and practical level. Non-governmental actors are at work mediating between public institutions and the local population. This dynamic has enabled a multitude of cooperation models to develop between government and civil society supporters. As knowledge built on experience grows, the municipalities and governments at issue are now also recognising the options they have to take action and are initiating social programmes and development projects.

For this purpose, constructional measures are conducted that are often integrated with programmes to enhance citizens’ participation, education, economic development and employment as well as health and security. The “Participation-oriented development programme in urban poverty-stricken areas” in Egypt is one such example of integrated urban district enhancement based on cooperation among various actors. 

But in addition, cooperation among disadvantaged urban districts in the city as a whole is of importance and can make a significant contribution to social cohesion and security in the city. In this context, the urban mobility system represents an example of an important entry point. In Medellín/Colombia, such an approach enabled the integration of disadvantaged urban districts based on a cable railway in combination with other constructional urban development measures. 

In urban districts where social and economic problems are building up, German municipalities opt for district management approaches. This area-related approach centres on formulating and implementing holistic and integrated action programmes together with inhabitants, local actors and institutions operating in the district. This integrated approach aims to enable the population to participate in areas as diverse as housing, mobility, economics, education and culture at urban district level. In order to perform the various tasks that district management involves, citizens’ centres are often set up in the urban districts affected that facilitate direct cooperation with local citizens. For example, the cities of Gelsenkirchen and Herten have launched an urban district centre in a common project area where 15 million euro is to be invested up to 2018 in order to boost the local economy and involve citizens in the constructional process. Integrating civil society organisations at district level that actively engage in and contribute to shaping local activities is an important element of this approach. Such integrative approaches enable sustainable social and economic development while simultaneously considering and balancing all interests.

Cities in developing countries and emerging economies can benefit from the German approach of district management and the wide range of cooperation models variants of which have already been applied since the 1990s and are making a productive contribution to the social integration of disadvantaged population groups in the city.

In addition to these aspects, which relate to urban districts and residential areas, specific interests of population groups with special needs, such as children and youths, senior citizens, people with disabilities and citizens who have migrated to the cities, are also of significance in the sense of the social city’s mission. Here, internationally, the notion of the inclusive city refers more to the integration of all citizens, whereas in the German context, the concept of inclusion centres in particular on integrating people with disabilities – with regard to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Good Practices

Inclusive violence and crime prevention (VCP)


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Andernach - The Eatable City


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Participatory community development in urban areas of Cairo


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The Mietshäuser Syndikat (apartment-house syndicate), Germany


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