An upfront challenge for planning and development practitioners and educators is to address the interface of equity, environmental sustainability and civil society in urban interventions in local urban contexts in developing countries. How to address urban poverty, in areas with environmental conflicts and in realities with government restrictions on civil society organisations? ‘City beautiful’ projects can easily dislocate vulnerable homeless, with a weak community organisation, unable to unite and oppose forced removal. Female headed households in their struggle for survival, and for creating safe upbringing environments, are the most vulnerable.
There is an exponential growth of non-formal build environments in developing countries. Historical city centres and urban villages are also being excluded from formal planning efforts. However, the local as well as macroeconomic role of informal sector in development must also be recognised. Meaningful intervention in non-formal, often called slum neighbourhoods of negotiated, but formally not accepted; space has to be addressed at two levels.
First, the internal strength of the community and its institutional base, its ‘glue’, has to be approached together with resources, livelihood assets and skills, and land relations. It is our experience that this start with community self-identification of strength is essential in contributing to positive change where the community is in charge. Environmental auditing of the community is also a part of this process.
Secondly, in efforts of integrated action planning the strategic levels of governance, and non dependency creating critical NGO support, have to be assessed. There is recognition that community- / target group and area- / right based developmental efforts require lasting government recognition.
The role of universities in this community driven process with local government recognition and support will always be marginal. But independent universities can identify local knowledge and contribute with contextual information needed for community initiatives and local government interventions. A long term involvement of universities of the South and North in cooperation is meaningful in creating a social-ecological and area-based livelihood information base and support to local area and right based development initiatives. This can contribute to exchange of local knowledge and to strategic governance efforts.