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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Development and Economic Growth

Distant Neighbors: Innovative Approaches to Development across Geographies


On a cold December afternoon in 2017, I step inside the offices of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), run by Marty Chen of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. I am immediately transported. Photographs from around the world fill this warm, colorful space. On the walls, I see smiling faces: street vendors in Mumbai; waste pickers in Bogota; laborers organizing in Durban, a sign “decent work for all” clearly visible. “[At WIEGO], we find, and link up, organizations of the working poor where we can,” Chen tells me.[1] “And we do it by sector. We find that street vendors in Mumbai or Milan might have more in common with each other than with waste pickers in their own geography. We’re committed to building the capacity of these organizations, creating networks among them, and fostering their ability for democratic functioning and advocacy.”

The shared concerns of street vendors half a world apart offer perspective on one of the most central questions of our time: how can ordinary individuals, organizations, and networks build power and make their voices heard despite rising global inequality?

Traditional geopolitical structures like municipal governments or rural development nonprofits are not flexible enough to deal with the complex, rapidly changing, and multi-jurisdictional nature of 21st-century inequality. And yet, we cannot invent brand-new public-sector organizations out of thin air or even dramatically change existing ones while maintaining democratic legitimacy. Instead, we can, and should, reinvigorate existing democratic institutions by forming networks across sectors and geopolitical boundaries. Three institutions—WIEGO, Envision Utah, and United Nations Habitat (UN Habitat)—are putting this theory into practice. Each is charting a path of “integrated territorial development,” thinking about urban, rural, and regional development in a comprehensive, multi-sector, and globally connected way. As a result, they are making promising advances in reducing inequality.

Integrated Territorial Development

Two global mega-trends will dominate the 21st century: urbanization and inequality. Although cities occupy only 2 percent of the world’s land, they account for 55 percent of the world’s population, 70 percent of the world’s economic activity, and around 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.[2] Cities are only getting bigger, and growing at a faster pace, in both physical size and population.[3] Inequality within cities is also on the rise.[4] In their current form, cities have greater income inequality than rural areas.[5]

The term “global flows” refers to the ways that capital, labor, natural resources, and ideas move between urban and rural areas. Because wealthy people and organizations can interact more easily, global flows can drive greater inequality.[6]

Accordingly, academics, policy makers, and practitioners are thinking about new ways to address challenges to inequality globally.[7] An integrated territorial development framework aims to confront inequality and improve service delivery by rethinking cities’ and regions’ spatially bounded institutions. Integrated territorial development approaches help us replace an “urban-rural binary” that misses various types of interconnectedness. Key to integrated territorial development is viewing development through global flows as opposed to fixed spaces.

Integrated territorial development policies are ambitious. Public-sector institutions might re-constitute themselves to consider, for instance, how to regulate a global process of natural resource extraction rather than just focusing on city polluters at the end stage of a supply chain. Similarly, nonprofit institutions, rather than choosing between urban and rural development, might be better served by connecting small rural producers of agricultural commodities with low-income informal vendors and urban consumers.

Crafting integrated territorial approaches to development globally is difficult today, given waning support for government and multilateralism at the international level. In the near term, organizations and movements must build their own networks across sectors, geographies, and industries.

Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing

WIEGO’s Marty Chen describes her organization as “part think tank, part social movement.” WIEGO supports the informal working poor, particularly women, to advocate voice, visibility, and validity for informal workers as they advance new ways of thinking and new solutions to reduce inequality globally.[8]

WIEGO’s mission rejects traditional spatial confines. WIEGO offers support for local causes with replication potential in similar local geographies. They also build urban and rural coalitions of workers at the national level and advocate informal worker representation in global multilateral processes. For example, WIEGO worked in partnership with local waste pickers, the local Trade Union confederation, and progressive political activist David Harvey to oppose the privatization of waste collection in Montevideo, Uruguay.[9] Privatization efforts threaten the livelihoods of urban waste pickers in Montevideo and other cities across the Global South.

WIEGO’s mission also connects urban and rural causes within a single nation. WIEGO’s worker-organizers filled an event for Ghanaian government officials on universal occupational health. They helped persuade the head of Ghana’s National Health Insurance System to launch a public campaign to help qualified Ghanaians, including informal workers and others, get registered for health care.[10] Internationally, WIEGO brings worker-leaders to events like the World Urban Forum and UN Habitat’s Habitat III conference to ensure the voice of informal workers is considered in multilateral processes. Most importantly, WIEGO activists and organizers share best practices and build relationships, constantly connecting issues at the local, national, and international levels.

One concrete example of WIEGO’s integrated territorial approach is its organizing for informal workers. “Globally, 60 percent of all workers are informal,” Marty tells me. “Yet in our dominant narratives, we stigmatize informal work as ‘noncompliant, or illegal.’ We’re in effect stigmatizing half of the global workforce.

We find that street vendors in Mumbai or Milan might have more in common with each other than with waste pickers in their own geography.

“And too often the state response is punitive, not empowering,” Marty adds. Workers live in constant fear, prone to municipal police confiscating their wares, tearing down their homes, or taking them under arrest. “Dominant narratives [about informality] are negative, and existing models inadequate.” WIEGO is connecting organizations and networks of the working poor around the world, modeling how to change the rules of the development game for, and with, informal workers. Tangible stories from Montevideo inform WIEGO’s advocacy in global multilateral processes like Habitat III, helping make the case for global rules that robustly defend public goods. WIEGO effectively uses an integrated territorial approach to reduce urban inequality for a massive, yet largely invisible, population: informal workers.

Envision Utah

Just as integrated territorial development can prevent the exclusion of marginalized populations, this approach can help jurisdictions plan for equitable, sustainable growth. Utah is the nation’s fastest-growing state, according to the US Census.[11] To prevent sprawling, unplanned growth, the nonpartisan convening organization Envision Utah launched a public process in 1997 to discuss the state’s future. This effort touched nearly every sector and stakeholder group imaginable, engaging more than 50,000 Utahans.[12]

To this day, Envision Utah centrally engages stakeholders from all sectors and geographies in the state: philanthropic foundations, industry, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its associated foundation, and city and county governments up to Governor Gary Herbert’s office.

Envision Utah stakeholders understand that the public challenges facing the state are increasingly multi-jurisdictional and require similarly interdisciplinary responses. Working with the City of Provo, business leaders, academic institutions like Brigham Young University (BYU), and civic groups like Utah Moms for Clean Air, Envision Utah helped pioneer the Provo Clean Air Toolkit. This resource can be used locally in Provo but was also designed to build technical capacity for municipalities and larger jurisdictions across the state.[13] The organization has helped build a Housing and Opportunity Assessment tool that provides accessible information on demographic, economic, and housing disparities for different jurisdictions, and a Transit Oriented Development guide for the Greater Salt Lake City Wasatch Front.[14]

“Among our stakeholders, there’s honestly more pragmatism than tension. Maybe part of it is that it’s the West, it’s Utah, but we find that people of all stripes are willing to sit down at the table and talk about common interests and the common good,” Envision Utah’s Chief Operating Officer Ari Bruening tells me in a phone interview.[15] Recognizing that “how we grow matters,” Envision Utah began not by asking citizens what specific public policies they would like to see passed, but what core values Utahans associate with quality of life and growth issues. “We learned, for example, that climate change, as a term, is not something Utahans are concerned about. But they are worried about air quality . . . . The deeper reason why they care is that air quality links to cherished and commonly held values,” Bruening tells me. Such values include freedom, a desire for quality of life for future generations, and growing sustainably with nature. Though this work spans jurisdictions, Envision Utah’s focus on common values grounds an integrated territorial development approach in the communities it serves.

Travel to Utah today, and you will see new public infrastructure like light rail and high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in and around Salt Lake City and new investment for high-tech ventures growing in the region’s “Point of the Mountain” area. You may also learn that the state has the nation’s lowest rate of income inequality.[16] A broad-based democratic and participatory development approach, with an eye to multi-sector and multi-jurisdictional coalitions, has allowed Utah to plan for the long term and enact common-sense policies that reduce inequality.

“The fact that we’re not government helps us be successful, I think,” Ari tells me. “It gets politics out of it and takes away any sense of threat. When we survey people, they feel like they can talk to us with total independence. It’s helpful.” A key to Envision Utah’s successes has been their participatory process. In the spirit of direct democracy, the organization engages tens of thousands of Utah residents to find a common language and collectively solve problems across the state.

In a region known for its skepticism of Big Government, Envision Utah has successfully woven together participatory engagement with residents and a multi-sector quilt of actors by centering an integrated territorial development approach on shared values. The end result is smart, democratic problem-solving for the long term, with solutions that span urban and rural to help reduce inequality statewide.

UN Habitat

Given that urban inequality is a globally connected phenomenon, operationalizing integrated territorial development requires decisive action at the global, multilateral level. In October 2016, 30,000 people, including representatives of national governments, civil society stakeholders, and working women from WIEGO, gathered to debate and sign off on the New Urban Agenda—the global strategy that will guide urban development over the next 20 years.[17] The previous year, nations ratified the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Taken together, these global processes give rise to commitments surrounding integrated territorial development that seek to legitimize the concept and test new models, formally endorsed by hundreds of UN member states.

Thomas Forster is leading UN Habitat’s work on implementing Guiding Principles, or GPs, for integrated territorial development in both the SDGs and New Urban Agenda. It is an ambitious task, and more challenging yet, one that comes in the context of increasing skepticism toward multilateral organizations like the UN.

Moving from theory to practice for integrated territorial development requires addressing strategic challenges on a global scale. “There is a lot of discussion on how existing institutions will have to work together in new ways,” Forster tells me in a recent interview, referring to the multi-jurisdictional and geographic nature of the Guiding Principles. “It’s complicated enough with existing institutions, like city governments. People are going to need to become ‘co-managers’ across silos, and you bring in ‘urban-rural’ and you exponentially complicate roles.”[18]

Forster’s vision hinges on what he calls an “uber-participatory” process. “With this job, everything I write is based on consultations: with UN Habitat; FAO [the UN Food and Agriculture Organization]; civil society groups; the UN Economic Commission of Africa; Mexico’s new ministry of integrated territorial development; nation-states like Ethiopia, which have now formally drafted wording on urban-rural linkages;[19] the US Conference of Mayors; you name it.”

The key, Forster says, is that “we need to bring all of this stuff to the feet of the UN Agencies” so that they can work with national governments, or in some cases sub-national governments, to implement solutions. In an increasingly global world where paralysis and division at the national level often impede momentum, bypassing national governments may be a strategic approach.

Forster argues that UN Habitat’s Guiding Principles should “provide useful tools for both urban and rural actors,” should “aim to improve accessibility to services across the urban-rural continuum,” and should “foster context-specific urban-rural partnerships.”[20] Tools that bring urban and rural actors together can be exceptionally powerful. They include dialogue; consensus building; and a look at where and how to harness institutional policy, financing, and technical capacity. Useful tools to emulate might include Provo’s Clean Air Toolkit or Envision Utah’s participatory processes itself; those seeking effective partnerships might look to WIEGO’s global organizing networks.

Forster has plenty of work ahead of him. “The UN Habitat study includes a mandala diagram of no fewer than ten branches of global flows. Confronting unjust global food systems, for example, which itself could consume my entire work for years, is only one mandala branch,” he tells me. “Another project will be gathering over 100 case studies. When going from guiding principles to implementation, lifting up examples of what works and analyzing why is the name of the game.”[21]


WIEGO’s Marty Chen, Envision Utah’s Ari Bruening, and UN Habitat’s Thomas Forster are all engaged in titanic projects. They are confronting the dual, global challenges posed by urbanization and inequality. These three practitioners are working in different contexts and jurisdictions, with different rhetoric, and with different approaches. WIEGO connects workers on the ground in myriad contexts to spread awareness about development injustices. Envision Utah uses a participatory approach to engage in statewide long-term problem solving. UN Habitat seeks to operationalize this nascent framework in a way that lifts up promising examples and provides guidance and clarity for a variety of institutions and actors.

UCLA Professor Ananya Roy perhaps frames it best: today’s political economy includes vast, and indeed global, “informality at the top.”[22] Be it bad intent—like developers who make deals with city policy makers and exceptions to democratic rules—or beleaguered and incapable public institutions unable to respond to what Brenner calls “unchecked ecological plunder,”[23] neat, jurisdictionally confined responses are falling short. Adopting an integrated territorial development paradigm will re-constitute democratic problem-solving for a global urban context. The next step is acting on that paradigm in practice, following individuals and organizations of all backgrounds who are organizing and aggregating their voices to respond to global challenges with multi-local solutions. We can begin by looking to WIEGO, Envision Utah, and UN Habitat.

Stefan Norgaard is a second-year master in public policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He serves as a managing editor for the Kennedy School Review and a research associate with the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative. Formerly, Stefan worked with the Ford Foundation’s Equitable Development team and as a fellow with the NYC Department of Transportation. He is passionate about good governance, participatory democratic practice, and development that is equal and just.

Photo by Zoe Chen on Unsplash

[1] Martha (Marty) Chen, interview by author, 14 December 2017.

[2] Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights (New York: United Nations, 2014).

[3] Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Urbanization Prospects.

[4] “IMF Fiscal Monitor: Tackling Inequality, October 2017,” International Monetary Fund, October 2017, accessed 19 January 2018,

[5] Kristian Behrens and Frédéric Robert-Nicoud, “Do cities widen the gap between rich and poor?” The World Economic Forum, 24 July 2014, accessed 14 December 2017,

[6] Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, “Towards a new epistemology of the urban?” City 19, no. 2-3 (2015): 151–182.

[7] As one example of global flows increasing inequality, looking at rates of financial transactions, Columbia sociologist Saskia Sassen found more network flows between New York and Shanghai than New York and nearby Newark. See: Saskia Sassen, “The Global City: Enabling Economic Intermediation and Bearing Its Costs,” City & Community 15, no. 2 (2016): 97–108.

[8] Learn more about WIEGO and its organizational mission and vision at

[9] “VIDEO: Right to the City and Privatization,” WIEGO, 2017, accessed 17 December 2017,

[10] Martha (Marty) Chen, interview by author.

[11] “Utah is Nation’s Fastest-Growing State, Census Bureau Reports,” US Census Bureau: Press Release (Release Number: CB16-214), 20 December 2016, accessed 16 December 2017,

[12] “Mission & History,” Envision Utah, last modified 2016, accessed 16 December 2017,

[13] More information about the Provo Clean Air Toolkit is available at

[14] More information about Envision Utah’s Housing and Opportunity Assessment tool is available at More information about the TOD Guide is available at

[15] Ari Bruening, phone interview by author, 15 December 2017. For more information about Ari Bruening and Envision Utah, visit

[16] Morgan Pratt, “Utah: Lowest Income Inequality in the Nation,” Utah Public Radio, 7 July 2016, accessed 18 December 2017, This article is based on research from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). Other demographic and economic data in EPI’s report is available at

[17] “What is the New Urban Agenda?” Citiscope, June 2015, accessed 15 December 2017,

[18] Thomas Forster, Skype interview by author, 13 December 2017.

[19] For more information on Ethiopian practices and assessments using an urban-rural linkages approach, visit

[20] Remy Sietchiping, Implementing the New Urban Agenda by Strengthening Urban-Rural Linkages – Leave No One And No Space Behind (Nairobi, Kenya: UN Habitat, 2017).

[21] Sietchiping, Implementing the New Urban Agenda.”

[22] Ananya Roy, “Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning,” Journal of the American Planning Association 71, no. 2 (2005): 147–58.

[23] Neil J. Brenner, ed., Implosions/Explosions: Towards a Study for Planetary Urbanization (Berlin: JOVIS, 2014), 28.