Concept note

Safe and sustainable cities: human security, migration and wellbeing

Organisations involved:

This project is a collaboration between the University of Exeter, in the UK, and the Refugee and Migratory Movement Research Unit, in Bangladesh. The project is for 18 months. It is funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department for International Development (DFID), under the call Development Frontier Research Fund.


Migration and urbanization processes are intensifying globally, and more specifically in low income countries such as Bangladesh, as movement towards economic opportunities increases life chances and potential wellbeing. According to the 2014 United Nations World Urbanization Prospects report, more than two thirds of the world’s population is likely to reside in urban areas by 2050, adding another 2.5 billion people to the current 4 billion urban residents. As a result, enhancing our current understanding on the adaptive capacity and wellbeing of new urban populations is central to sustainability in human settlements and the elimination of poverty. Previous research argues that migration creates opportunities for new forms of sustainable cities; and intensifies the linkages between rural and urban economies, not least for the production and consumption of food. Yet new low-income population and discrete ethnic minority groups moving to urban centres most often cluster in areas where they are exposed to environmental hazards such as poor air and water quality, flooding or landslides, and also face differential access to services and labour markets. Hence a major challenge for Bangladesh, and for Chittagong in particular, is to create safe and sustainable urbanization transitions.

Project Goals and Objectives

This project aims to create new insights building on existing and emerging knowledge on human security, migration and environmental interactions on: (1) the drivers of migration to cities; (2) circumstances of immobility, and (3) issues of place, identity and networks in migrant populations. The research addresses key challenges in the Sustainable Development Goals on human settlements, sustainable cities and infrastructure, and on poverty, wellbeing and human security by examining questions of economic integration and wellbeing in migration destination areas. According to the United Nations, there is insufficient urban data available on indicators associated with SDG 11 on Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable Settlements, in many cities, especially in Africa and Asia where 90 per cent of urban growth is expected to occur by 2050. For example, in many cities absence of data on access to safe, accessible and sustainable public transport, or people’s ability to directly participate in urban planning and management, mean that many processes and dynamics are missing from official censuses and household surveys compiled by national statistics offices. Key indicators relating to urban sustainable development goals are lacking in particular that can help inform policy-makers about access to services and resources that improve living conditions for new migrant populations in expanding urban environments. Therefore, the specific objectives of the project are:

  • To examine the challenges of rapid migration to urban settlements in terms of the sustainability, security, integration and wellbeing of new populations.
  • To use this new knowledge to generate insights on how new migrant populations can be empowered into urban planning processes in Chittagong.
  • To examine the implications of project findings for the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 11 on Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable Settlements, SDG 8 on Inclusive Growth, and SDG 3 on Healthy Lives and Wellbeing.

Project strategy and activities

The research will collect data and co-produce intervention insights in Chittagong, a destination for migrants displaced by coastal hazards and ethnic minority populations from the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The project is organised around four stages involving co-design of research protocols, data collection and different forms of dissemination. An explanation of activities involved in each stage is provided below:

Stage 1 will refine the overall research design, ensuring co-production with stakeholders in Chittagong. It will involve the development, design and testing of a survey instrument for variables to test hypotheses and development of complementary photo-elicitation protocols.

Stage 2 involves data collection in a sample of migrant populations in Chittagong. The surveys will be stratified by length of residence to capture new migrants and those established.

Stage 3 involves building empathy between Chittagong planners and migrants to support the prioritization of policies and strategies that help integrate new migrant populations in Chittagong. Migrant populations and planners will engage in deliberative processes, bringing stakeholders together to explore visual representations of perceived sources of sustainability and security generated by migrants through photo-elicitation methods. The aim of the workshop is to support stakeholders in taking each other’s perspectives, in order to co-design and integrate migrant viewpoints into policies and actions that interrogate existing mental models and barriers to migrant integration.

Stage 4 involves integration of co-designed policy lessons for urban planning and security, for urban-rural policy linkages, and for poverty-alleviating interventions. A policy report in both English and Bangla will be published and disseminated nationally and globally among policy-makers, practitioners and academics involved in urban sustainability, demography, and poverty alleviation.