Chapter 4: We all belong here: investigating social obstacles

Chapter 4: We all belong here: investigating social obstacles

Now that we explored of the concepts of empowerment and need assessment, we are going to focus our attention at the issue of social exclusion, as it is necessary to understand what people at risk of exclusion are facing in order to design and implement projects that aim at supporting them.
A city is such a place that has both social and spatial dimensions. It can be compared to an arena, or to a theatrical stage, where actors play out their roles of everyday life. It is in large urban centers that we encounter all kinds of diversity and dissimilarity of people. It is easy to see all sorts of distances between extreme social groups (e.g., those belonging to the underclass and those belonging to the elite) and all sorts of inequalities (based on an individual’s status, prestige, background, religion, financial resources, etc.). Such a situation in cities eventually leads to the segregation between residents representing different groups. For individuals who hold similar views, have similar socioeconomic status, and value similar values (such as: privacy, anonymity and security, or family, neighborly bonding and cooperation) want to occupy close territories, which on the other hand are isolated from groups that are completely different. That’s why, in contemporary urban spaces, ghettos are being formed, inhabited both by the poor and marginalized, as well as by the rich and the emerging new middle class, who themselves wall themselves off from the rest of the community.

We are all in this together

The issue of socio-spatial segregation in cities is of great interest, through the richness and diversity of the processes and changes that are taking place in modern cities, which makes the topic addressed here have a timely but also timeless dimension. Developed countries concentrate the majority of their population in the cities and urban areas. This is why the topic discussed here is so relevant when it comes to designing projects aiming at creating more inclusive city areas. It is the urban space and the people living in it that interact with each other. Where we are born, raised and internalize all the norms and values accepted in a given culture has a huge impact on our personality and the social groups we function in. But people also influence and shape their environment, making many changes and modifications, which can be observed in the changing image of the city.

Every individual is different from others. 

This rule applies to both small groups and larger social collectives. We will not find two identical societies. The above statement is not a new discovery-it can even be said to be trivial. It should be noted, however, that differences between people, as well as between larger communities, do not yet constitute social inequality, but those differences cause certain social consequences. They determine the social position of individuals, their roles, and underlie social divisions and differentiation.


In modern democratic societies, social inequalities can, on the one hand, provide the basis for a progressive process of exclusion of individual social groups, and on the other hand, indicate the progressive polarization of society, which can manifest itself, among other things, in the place of residence of individual social groups and the standard and quality of their lives.

In order to better understand the issues raised, it is necessary to take a closer look and analyze the key concepts related to this topic: inequality and social exclusion.


Social inequality is an essential feature of all modern societies. Each of the known types of social structures allows inequalities to arise. Inequality manifests itself in different spheres, such as economics, politics, or social consciousness. In most cases, at least some of the inequality is visible on a first glance at the community. It is easy for example to point out in which neighborhood the rich live and in which the poor, who has power and who is subject to it. Some other inequalities, especially those that are not so strictly related to the income level, are not so obvious and one need to observe and investigate the community more closely to understand them. 

Social inequality refers to a situation in which given individuals are unequal to each other because of their membership in different groups or because they have different social statuses. Keep in mind that not every difference must immediately mean social inequality. To be able to talk about social inequality, it is necessary to take into account that unequal in this sense, means easier or more difficult access or greater or lesser chances of access to goods that are valued by society. Such goods that generate social inequality include: 

wealth (material, economic goods)





culture and access to it

Social exclusion 

Exclusion in different forms has been always present in societies. Historical examples include banishment from the community or excommunication imposed by the catholic church. In modern societies these drastic forms of physical (or geographical) exclusion from the communities are rarely present, but it does not mean we got rid of social exclusion altogether, we just face different forms of it contemporarily. 

The contemporary dimension of social exclusion is different from that of the past and is due to many different reasons. It has also become the subject of many political, economic and sociological debates and considerations. It can be said that nowadays, social exclusion is a fact that can be realistically observed and that can pose a certain threat to the existing social order.

Social exclusion can be referred to the situation in which the individuals in question are deprived of the opportunity to fully act and participate in the life of the society to which they belong. We can analyze three main, different dimensions of exclusion:

Economic exclusion which manifests itself both in the sphere of production (employment and participation in the labor market) and consumption (it includes what individuals acquire, buy and use on a daily basis). This form of exclusion can be observed when individuals are deprived of access to and opportunities to acquire goods that would enable them to meet their basic needs. Consequences of economic exclusion are, among others, poverty, destitution, or homelessness. 

Political exclusion which manifests itself through the inability to take an active part in political life. This is due, among other things, to the fact that excluded individuals are often deprived of access to the media, information, or the necessary opportunities to engage in political life. In modern liberal and democratic societies, political participation is an essential element of its proper functioning. However, excludable individuals are often deprived of this opportunity. This creates a “vicious circle of exclusion” as these individuals do not take an active part in the political life of their country, and thus their issues are not debated.

Social exclusion that affects social life as much as the community itself. Areas poor in public institutions and public use facilities (such as kindergartens, city parks, sports fields, etc.), are characterized by a high degree of social exclusion. Through this also active participation of individuals in social life is reduced to a minimum or does not occur at all. Excluded individuals and groups alike often have fewer opportunities for leisure and other forms of tourism and recreation outside their place of residence. Social exclusion is also understood as the weakening or even disintegration of social ties. Such a loose network of underdeveloped social relations can consequently lead to the marginalization of an individual or group and to isolation and the reduction or complete severance of contacts with other individuals and groups.

Social exclusion in cities – spatial perspective 

Social exclusion can take many forms. One of them is exclusion on housing and neighborhood grounds. At first glance, one can see that some people live in comfortable and luxurious homes, others in middle-class apartments, and some in dilapidated, neglected and sometimes even disconnected from utilities clusters. Where an individual lives is largely determined by his or her capital, income, as well as social standing and status. In the housing market, stratification is discernible at both the residential and social levels.

Individuals and groups who do not have adequate economic resources and are in an inadequate living and social situation are often deprived not only of the chance to live at an average standard, but also of a decent existence. Such a situation affects not only individuals, but entire groups, who may be excluded from active participation in the life of the rest of society, for example: by being deprived of opportunities for development or action.

Social exclusion can manifest itself in spatial form. No two neighborhoods are alike. Some are neat, green and clean while others lack accessibility to services, institutions and public amenities, are neglected and unsafe.

Individuals living in poorer urban neighborhoods may face difficulties in crossing the boundaries of exclusion and actively participating in social life. Their network of ties with friends, acquaintances is narrow and limited. Therefore, the stream of information that can relate to work, political and public events is hampered. Such a situation reflects negatively on family life. Overall living standards are degraded due to the growing criminal activity, including that of youth. In such neighborhoods, the turnover of residents is relatively high, due to frequent moves. This fact is another reason why relations in this local community are weak, lacking trust and solidarity, people are not active and do not participate in the social life of their neighborhood.

Could social exclusion be a choice?

In the modern world, an important aspect of the phenomenon of social marginalization is whether it is due to external factors beyond the control of the individual or group, or whether people themselves, by their own choice, push themselves to the margins of society and decide not to be part of the (at least mainstream) community.

An individual, as well as an entire collective, can be deprived of something important as a result of the impact of external forces, which include, among others: nature, institutions of state administration, coercive organizations (military, police), other social groups. Some researchers claim that no marginalized individual is in such a situation by their own choice, sometimes they just accept the position in which they were placed, but they did not end up in there by choice. From this perspective, an individual’s marginal position cannot be their voluntary choice, since it results from the process of rejection of individuals and groups to peripheral positions by the dominant collective. 

However, individuals, as well as groups, can deprive themselves of the right to, among other things: power, wealth, prestige, etc. They can do this both by their conscious and intentional actions and by those that remain unintentional. Individuals who choose to exclude themselves by choice often seek an alternative to the dominant culture in this way. According to some researchers, the individual may see this state as a symptom of individually realized freedom, under conditions of increased tolerance for nonconformist behavior. Society, on the other hand, may associate such a state of affairs with an opportunity for development or, conversely, with a social threat. This alternative of everyday life is a kind of independent life strategy, which is conditioned by the situation of a given individual (or group) and its conscious choice. 


Social exclusion and lack of participation in political, social, and cultural life

Much research has shown that people who are marginalized or excluded tend to have lower level of participation in social, political, and cultural life of their communities.  Even though they live in cities that may present a lot of opportunities to stay involved and engage, people from groups at risk in general do not take advantage of those opportunities and do not participate as often as those who do not belong to excluded or marginalized groups. 


There are some reasons why low level of participation is considered an issue that needs to be addressed when attempting to create more inclusive urban spaces. Some of these reasons can be defined as follows:

Community life and participation in it is a value in itself. This view comes from an assumption or a belief that people are social beings, and staying involved in collective activities and engaged in community life is part of the human nature – those who do not participate do not thus realize their full potential as humans.

Participation in community life leads to the achievement of valuable social and economical goals. In this view, we assume that being an active part of the community and staying engage can improve individual’s status as it gives people access to material and non-material resources that are shared within the community. 

When we, as NGO workers and activists, develop projects that aim at increasing participation of people at risk of exclusion, we first of all need to understand the reasons why they do not participate.  While analyzing this issue it is important to keep in mind that not all participation is desired and equally positive. The table below addresses this question

Evaluation of participation


Not participating


I am participating in something that is generally evaluated as positive, so there is no problem here, by participating I can fulfill my duties.

I do not participate in something that is evaluated positively, so it may be considered a problem when participation is recommended or considered an obligation


I am participating in something that is judged negatively, so it may be considered a problem due to the violation of the prohibition on participation or the recommendation not to participate

I do not participate in something evaluated negatively, so non-participation is not a problem, and may even be recommended

The upper right corner of the table, so the state when participation is generally seen as valued and positive, but people still do not get engaged, is the classic example of social exclusion, and this is the situation we should address in our activities that aim at improving the social, economic, and cultural conditions in our urban communities.

For the context of this course, the most important target group are those who wish to be more engaged and active, so they have the motivation, but they do not have the capacity and/or the ability to do so. This means they are facing some obstacles that effectively prevent them from staying engaged and involved. Our role as NGO activists is to approach our target group and understand what obstacles those are and what we can do to help solve them. Some of them can actually be improved with appropriate adjustments to our project (for example people would like to participate but they do not know the language well enough, in which case you could try providing the translations), whereas some are more systemic and require long term action that is undertaken in a close cooperation with politicians, municipalities, and other stakeholders. 

Participation for social inclusion

When it comes to designing projects that are based on participation, meaning encouraging adults at risk of exclusion to stay involved and engaged, there are some principles worth to take into consideration. Here is a list of points to consider that were developed by International Association for Public Participation:

  • Participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process
  • Participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision. 
  • Participation promotes sustainable decisions by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all participants, including decision makers. 
  • Participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision. 
  • Participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate. 
  • Participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way. 
  • Public participation communicates to participants how their input affected the decision. 

The organization mentioned earlier also developed the six core principles of public engagement that are helpful guidelines when it comes to designing and implementing urban projects that are based on participation. Following these principles will help you run your activities and create a safe space where participants feel that they are listened to, that their voice matters, and that they are the experts when it comes to the life of the community. 

Engagement is undertaken in the best interests of the whole community (or the affected part of the community, if the changes apply only to part of the local government area), rather than of any individual person or group.

  • Engagement draws the attention of the community to all relevant information, the purpose and general effect of the proposed plan/changes and the specific details. 
  • The community is provided with genuine opportunities to participate in/contribute to the plan-making process and is kept informed of the proposed plan/changes and its implications and any amendments during the process. 
  • Engagement is inclusive, appropriate to the needs of the community, and commensurate with the scale and complexity of the proposed plan/changes. 
  • Reach out to and encourage the community to be involved in discussing planning and development issues that affect their lives, making sure to seek out diverse voices and perspectives. 
  • Identify and address potential barriers to community input, while being open with the community about any budget constraints. 
  • Consistent engagement processes can make it easier for the community and stakeholders to participate. However, this must be balanced with the need for engagement tools to suit the community and the circumstances of the proposal being considered. Identify approaches to reach all community members, including those with specific needs (e.g. language, people with disabilities, older people, and the young). Different engagement tools and different questions will produce better responses with different communities. Where possible, use a mix of qualitative and quantitative engagement methods to gather a diversity of opinions. 
  • The community is provided with information in a timely manner which allows for input before decisions are made. 
  • Sufficient time is allowed for the community to consider information and then make a meaningful contribution to the plan-making or development assessment process. 
  • Engagement should start early in the plan-making or development process when objectives and options are being identified. 
  • Listening to the community, addressing their concerns, and building capacity to understand planning and development issues and solutions can mean longer periods of engagement. 
  • Recognize that public engagement is a dynamic, ongoing process that requires flexibility. 

The community has easy access to information that is: 

  • accurate, easy to read and easy to understand 
  • tailored to the community, where necessary, in language and style 
  • in a form that appeals to the intended audience 
  • clear about how to make a submission, how the submission will be dealt with, and the general timeframe before a decision can be expected. 
  • The final decision about the proposed plan, changes to the plan or the development proposal is made in an open and transparent way. 
  • The community, as a whole, and individual submitters are provided with reasons for the decision and information about how all submissions have been taken into account. 
  • The final decision about the proposed plan, changes to the plan or the development proposal is made in an open and transparent way. 
  • The community, as a whole, and individual submitters are provided with reasons for the decision and information about how all submissions have been taken into account. 

Social inclusion and the European Union policies 

Knowing your local context is extremally important – research and need/asset assessment guarantees that your activities are the answer to the real challenges your community is facing. At the same time, it is worth to become familiarized with the current policies on the topic of preventing social inclusion, so that your projects can be designed accordingly. This is especially important when you are planning to get the funding for your activities – in this case all your activities have to comply with the main EU and national policies/priorities.

Here are some core principles on combating social exclusion you can based your projects upon in order to enhance inclusion in urban spaces:

  • Promoting multidimensional, integrated strategies for poverty prevention, and methods that should be mainstreamed into all correlating areas of social policy
  • Combating child poverty (including intergenerational transmission of poverty), and poverty in families – especially those with many children, single parents and families caring for dependents; and poverty experienced by children in institutions
  • Promoting inclusive labor markets, addressing the problem of poverty among working people
  • Eliminating inequalities in education, promoting equal access for all to information and communication technologies, with particular attention to the special needs of people with disabilities
  • Addressing such aspects of marginalization and poverty as age and gender
  • Ensuring equal access to adequate resources and services, including comfortable housing, health care and social protection
  • Facilitating access to culture and recreation
  • Preventing discrimination and promoting social integration of immigrants and ethnic minorities

When it comes to specific European Union policies on the topic of inclusion, the main principles on this issue are described in the European Pillar of Social Rights and the action plan developed based on it that was presented by the European Commission in March 2021. The Pillar is divided into three chapters as follows:

  • Chapter 1: Equal opportunities and access to the labor market
  • Chapter 2: Fair working conditions
  • Chapter 3: Social protection and inclusion

For the purpose of this guidebook we are going to present the principles included in Chapter 3 (Social protection and inclusion) as they are the most relevant when it comes to our work in urban spaces:

Childcare and support to children 

  • Children have the right to affordable early childhood education and care of good quality.
  • Children have the right to protection from poverty. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds have the right to specific measures to enhance equal opportunities.

Social protection

  • Regardless of the type and duration of their employment relationship, workers, and, under comparable conditions, the self-employed, have the right to adequate social protection.

Unemployment benefits

  • The unemployed have the right to adequate activation support from public employment services to (re)integrate in the labour market and adequate unemployment benefits of reasonable duration, in line with their contributions and national eligibility rules. Such benefits shall not constitute a disincentive for a quick return to employment.

Minimum income

  • Everyone lacking sufficient resources has the right to adequate minimum income benefits ensuring a life in dignity at all stages of life, and effective access to enabling goods and services. For those who can work, minimum income benefits should be combined with incentives to (re)integrate into the labour market.

Old age income and pensions

  • Workers and the self-employed in retirement have the right to a pension commensurate to their contributions and ensuring an adequate income. Women and men shall have equal opportunities to acquire pension rights.
  • Everyone in old age has the right to resources that ensure living in dignity.

Health care

  • Everyone has the right to timely access to affordable, preventive and curative health care of good quality.

Inclusion of people with disabilities

  • People with disabilities have the right to income support that ensures living in dignity, services that enable them to participate in the labour market and in society, and a work environment adapted to their needs.

Long-term care

  • Everyone has the right to affordable long-term care services of good quality, in particular home-care and community-based services.

Housing and assistance for the homeless

  • Access to social housing or housing assistance of good quality shall be provided for those in need.
  • Vulnerable people have the right to appropriate assistance and protection against forced eviction.
  • Adequate shelter and services shall be provided to the homeless in order to promote their social inclusion.

Access to essential services

  • Everyone has the right to access essential services of good quality, including water, sanitation, energy, transport, financial services and digital communications. Support for access to such services shall be available for those in need.