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An international Urban Equality agenda: KNOW participation at UCLG World Congress, Durban 2019

From the 11th-15th of November 2019, KNOW investigators attended the United Cities and Local Government (UCLG) Congress, in Durban, South Africa. Themed around the slogan: ‘Cities Are Listening’, this gathering of mayors and other urban practitioners was focused on the role of cities in localizing the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

KNOW partners from Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Havana, Cuba presented in a session entitled: ‘Partnerships for Urban Equality’. This session outlined the importance of placing urban equality at the centre of discussions, as key to securing the transformational aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda. The value of foregrounding equality was likewise identified in the Durban Political Declaration, the outcome document of the Congress, which explicitly identifies the next frontiers of the international municipal movement as ‘equality-driven’.

In particular, the KNOW session was framed around the concept of ‘partnerships with equivalence’: that is, partnerships which recognise the diverse skills, knowledges and values brought by different urban actors, and which are formed with mutual respect, transparency and accountability and a commitment to learn together. This concept is vital in recognition that partnerships —across the state, academy, civil society, or private sector— are fundamental to delivering the kinds of urban change needed in the coming era. However, it is also in recognition of the fact that urban actors are often profoundly unequal—with very different responsibilities and risks. If we understand urban equality from a relational perspective, involving the redistribution of goods and services, the reciprocal recognition of diverse identities and aspirations and parity of participation in decision-making, then ‘partnerships with equivalence’ are not only a means for delivering more equal outcomes, but can be a form of building more equitable cities. In a context in which informality and inequality are dominant modes of urbanisation, establishing the principles through which partnerships can be undertaken in the spirit of equivalence, to build these pathways towards greater equality, is central.

Above image: Postcard for the KNOW UCLG Global Conversation: Partnerships for Urban Equality.

Title image: KNOW panel session presented by Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr and Dr. Anelis María Marichal González; Image by Camila Cociña 2019


With this motivation, the session presented two examples of ‘the art of the possible’ from representatives from local governments and research institutions from Havana and Freetown. The session was chaired by KNOW Co-I Michele Acuto, and started with an introduction by KNOW Principal Investigator Caren Levy, who presented a framing for the notions of urban equality and partnerships with equivalence. This introduction was followed by presentations from government representatives, discussing how they see partnerships as a useful pathway to localise global agendas and to advance urban equality.

From Freetown, Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr presented the work of the ambitious ‘Transform Freetown’ agenda, which is aimed at delivering an integrated approach to the city’s development, which takes inclusivity and innovation at its heart. While delivered by the Freetown City Council (FCC), the Transform Freetown Agenda was developed through an intensive process of consultation, mobilizing over 15,000 people across over 300 sessions to identify priority areas of intervention. Working across a series of 19 measurable targets, and actualized through 37 initiatives, a range of stakeholders —from representatives of the urban poor, to international organisations, and local and national governments— have been called upon to shape the city’s future. From Havana, Dr. Anelis María Marichal González, General Director of Territorial Planning and Urban Planning, at the Institute of Physical Planning (IPF) in Havana laid out Cuba’s international commitments to urban development. Cuba is in the process of implementing its National Urban Agenda, which aligns with various goals set by the SDGs and NUA. This implementation is taking place through what IPF has called ‘a roadmap towards Habitat IV’. This roadmap includes 8 strategic axes and 24 work lines, which have been directly informed by different stakeholders through instances such as the National Urban Forum. At the core of this implementation is the notion of partnerships, looking to collectively build urban solutions with other government agencies and universities. This includes the ongoing collaboration with the KNOW Havana project, which has played a strategic role in finding mechanisms to link with local communities and their needs.

Image above: Freetown working group with Braima Koroma; Image by Michele Acuto 2019


In order to discuss collectively which principles should underpin partnerships for urban equality, these governmental presentations were followed by two parallel working groups led by research partners from Freetown and Havana, chaired by KNOW Research Fellows Stephanie Butcher and Camila Cociña respectively. In the Freetown group, KNOW partner Braima Koroma examined partnerships through the work of the Sierra Leone Urban Research Centre (SLURC). This includes the setting up of ‘Community Learning Platforms’ and ‘City Learning Platforms’. These governance structures were established specifically to build partnerships to better address urban challenges impacting informal settlement residents, in a participatory and sustained manner. At the community-level, this includes elected and diverse representatives (attuned to gender, tenure status, ability, and age, amongst other identities) who meet periodically to discuss the developmental challenges of their informal settlements. At the city-level, this draws on urban expertise from a range of stakeholders—from local and national government, NGOs and civil society, academia and research institutes, media, and the community learning platform. These platforms are in strong dialogue with the Transform Freetown agenda, as well as the National Development Plan of Sierra Leone. In doing so, they have established a democratic space in which knowledge around participatory upgrading is co-produced, at different scales.

In the case of Havana, KNOW partner Prof. Jorge Peña Díaz explained how the Technological University of Havana (CUJAE) has established a series of partnerships with local actors that have been contributing to shaping urban trajectories towards more equal urban futures. An example is the partnership established to contribute to the agenda of Mobility and Accessibility, which is one of the strategic axes of the Cuban NUA. The association ‘MAS Habana’ (Mobility, Accessibility and Sustainability for Havana) has been forged in collaboration with the Havana Transport Authority, the neighbourhood of Los Sitios, a Research Centre for Transport, and the Havana Planning Authority. The second example shared by Prof. Peña Díaz is the series of activities consolidated within the KNOW project. KNOW Havana has created partnerships with five faculties of the two most important universities of the country, three National Public Institutions, four specialised city authorities, five municipal governments, and several community-led projects. Prof. Peña Díaz reflected on how as a result of these partnerships, the university has positioned itself as a broker between authorities and communities, as well as a catalyser for urban transformation.

Image above: Havana working group with Jorge Peña Díaz; Image by Michele Acuto 2019


The partnerships presented in Havana and Freetown, while deeply reflective of their local contexts, nonetheless started to reveal a set of overlapping principles. While just emerging, these are the basis of ongoing discussions in KNOW on the conditions which can allow partnerships with equivalence to flourish:

  • Based on a shared vision, and common purpose: A partnership that is driven by a collective ‘project’ towards enhancing urban equality

  • Based upon co-produced knowledge: A partnership that seeks to devise knowledge-based solutions that draws on the different kinds of everyday knowledges and expertise of partners

  • Founded on mutual respect: A partnership that recognises that not all partnerships may start from a position of trust, but that new relations can be built through respectful engagement

  • Founded on inclusivity and open to new actors: A partnership that represents a platform with flexible membership which can draw in new people, involving a range of stakeholders, expertise and knowledges, as well as being sensitive to representation across diverse identities

  • Co-constructed as durable, strategic, and long-term: A partnership that is established on an ongoing (not project by project) basis, adaptable and responsive to the changing urban context, grounded in a long-term and strategic vision, and a commitment to co-learning

  • Rooted in a local governance context: A partnership that is in dialogue with decision making processes and regulatory frameworks, at the local, national, or international scale

  • Transparent and accountable: A partnership that sets and meets collectively agreed and clear targets and deliverables based on open resource allocation and data/information sharing, based on a long-term engagement.

  • Embraces diverse forms of engagement: A partnership that uses multiple communication technologies and modes of facilitation to engage diverse groups

As part of the debate, KNOW invited William Cobbett, Director of Cities Alliance, and Ana Falú from the Habitat International Coalition, to share their views and impressions, and to find ways to fit the debates about partnerships into the implementation of global commitments and obligations. This final discussion was chaired by KNOW Co-I Alexandre Apsan Frediani, allowing a rich debate with several actors, including organisations who led other sessions within the UCLG Congress, such as members of the Global Platform to the Right to the City. To finish, we invited the Sierra Leone poet and actor Fatmata Shour, who performed her recent poem “Life in the Slum, Still I Rise...

Image Left: Fatmata Shour, activist and poet; Image by Camila Cociña 2019


Find out more

William Cobbett (Director of Cities Alliance) spoke at our recent KNOW Dialogues in Urban Equality, International Partnerships for a 'capable state'. Tuesday 03 December. A recording of this will be available shortly online. To be notified, please subscribe to our mailing list.


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