While most of the implemented programmes that promote social cohesion are based on people’s ideology, perceptions, and social behaviours, the impact of the physical built environment, that hosts people’s lives and their social interactions, remains less tackled. In the context of urban planning, to what extent do our cities affect the advancement of social cohesion of communities? And could elusive and complex social concepts – like social cohesion – be tackled in a practical spatial planning approach that yields concrete actions?
The fostering of social cohesion gained intensive focus in the literature of urban planning and sustainable development studies, especially in cities, which include complex socio-economic fabrics and experience big demographic changes. Cities, that involve a diverse mass of the population of different backgrounds, interests, religions, ethnicities, and social statuses, would constitute more than two-thirds of the world population by 2050.
Opportunities and challenges of diversity come hand-in-hand. Providing equal opportunities and basic needs to all citizens, regardless of their background or social status is a pressing concern of planners and decision-makers in cities, where the income gap is more likely to get wider. Moreover, preserving unity and social solidarity among different social groups is a hard challenge that needs more than providing material needs to everyone.
Amman provides one case in point. Historically, the city received immigrant and refugee waves including Circassians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and recently the Syrians. The city, which is populated with 4,327,800 million residents which is 42% of Jordan’s total population, stands as a unique cultural and ethnic melted mixture, while presenting an example for peace and tolerance in a charged and unstable region. Yet socio-spatial division is still perceived in some areas of Amman, mostly based on the economic and wealth distribution, evidently between east and west Amman.
The eastern areas of Amman is poorer, hillier, more crowded, less fertile, and people are younger and receive services of lower quality than those in the western areas. Moreover, the recent unplanned Syrian refugee influx was an unprecedented demographic change that Amman planners could not have detected.
Cities for people
According to the Encyclopaedia of Quality of Life and Well-Being Research, “social cohesion refers to the extent of connectedness and solidarity among groups in society” and is based on two main dimensions. The relationships among members within the community and their sense of belonging to the city.
Social cohesion between different social groups depends on many factors. Although urban planners cannot independently provide the complete solution to the social problems of the city, yet their role would be facilitating the interaction and social mixing in the community by ensuring well-connected and liveable urban patterns. Therefore, urban planners tend to apply the human perspective to their cities when planning “cities for people” or “people-friendly” cities, where public spaces are occupied by people of different statuses.
For planners to provide equitable opportunities and services, the following needs to be taken into consideration: planning for suitable proximity between facilities, transportation, places of employment, and housing, while keeping accessibility and mobility within suitable range for all citizens. In addition to providing different affordable housing types for different social groups.
On the other hand, fostering social cohesion requires maintaining social values like justice and equality, which are connected to the distribution of wealth, and current and future opportunities among individuals. Also, critical to fulfilling equality and justice among citizens is people’s participation in the process of shaping their cities. In this regard, participatory planning is a key approach to enhancing the sense of belonging and social inclusion of all members of society.
The right to the city and the spatial justice
Fostering social inclusion in planning cities implies concepts like “the right to the city”, which is the right of the residents to full and equal access to the resources and services in cities. This right includes the concept of “Autogestion” (self-management), where people are free to make and remake their cities and themselves. In that sense, the right to the city is a continuous process shaped by people’s needs and challenges and based on “social solidarities”.
Another urban concept that explores justice in cities is the “spatial justice”, which have been broadly discussed by Professor Edward Soja in his book “Seeking Spatial Justice”, 2010. The term states that “justice has a geography, and the equitable distribution of resources, services, and access is a basic human right”. The term highlights the spatial dimension of justice, which explains hidden aspects and new perspectives for action.
Both concepts fall under urban social movements and complement each other to create the just city, which implies equity and distribution of resources on the one hand, and supports the full development of the individual and the society as a whole, on the other. Furthermore, the concepts are linked to the notion of citizenship, which requires people’s social mobility and participation in decision-making.
Social exclusion and marginalisation in cities
Preserving social cohesion and spatial justice among citizens raises their sense of belonging, while inequalities and injustice in distribution wealth and rights would lead to marginalise some social groups that are the least represented in the city or deprived of their basic needs. Subsequently, the society’s stability and security would be threatened, while conflicts, poorer social relationships, and violent crime rates would increase.
In most cases, the poor and the most vulnerable sense the injustice and inequality impact more than wealthier social groups, therefore, “the call for a “real” right to the city comes from the oppressed and alienated”. It comes also from “the most marginalised and the most underpaid and insecure members of the working class”.
Integrated approaches for complex contexts
Fostering social cohesion in the urban planning context requires action plans that intersect and work in parallel with different layers of development; social, economic, political, and cultural. The traditional tasks of urban planners in managing land use to provide services and needs are no longer enough to cope with the complex and massive growth of cities. Furthermore, anticipating shocks in an unstable part of the world, that is constantly changing, is a difficult task, therefore, proactive and resilient planning that responds to possible future scenarios is a necessity in this struggle.
This process must consider the participation of different social groups to foster the inclusivity and to preserve the sense of belonging and active citizenship within the community. Finally, while grievances and injustices could take several forms, linking them to the spatial dimension is a contemporary and practical approach that provides evidence and facilitates forming concrete actions, where both, the urban planner and the sociologist work together for a common agenda, in a collaborative manner.