Governing cities, steering futures

In 1963, the late planner and urbanist Peter Hall imagined London’s future in the year 2000 and identified some of the implications of the city’s growth. One of his key recommendations was to replace the system of government for London with “a completely new type of regional government, as yet unknown in this country, and analogous to the status of an American state or German Land.” This, of course, never happened and London instead went through a cycle of implementing, abolishing and re-introducing a far less ambitious city-wide government.

However, it is hardly surprising that most explorations of the future of cities and approaches to developing urban strategies tend to incorporate questions related to the governance of cities. These questions cut across a wide spectrum, ranging from functionalist perspectives on more appropriate administrative boundaries to broader issues related to political control, place-based autonomy and local democracy.

Furthermore, there is an increasing recognition of the complex interrelationship of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of urban development, which rarely allows for discussions of one without references to the other.  The Urban Age Programme is no exception. Ten years of research and conferences in more than a dozen world cities has had to consistently bring together critical reflection, observation, ideas, strategy, plans and governance in order to allow for a more fruitful engagement with the 21st century urban question.

In this tenth year of the Urban Age Programme, we are explicitly turning our attention to urban governance, building on the past three phases of a programme that first investigated the urban futures of individual cities, then focused on the broader regional contexts of urbanisation, and over the last four years has addressed key thematic areas of urban change. These have included the global shifts of urban economies, health and well-being, environmental sustainability and technology, and the physical transformation of cities.

The 13th Urban Age conference centrally addresses the link between urban governance and our collective capacities to engage with and shape the future development of cities. By investigating the way we govern urban futures, we analyse how the decisions that are made (or not made) today have long-term implications reaching well beyond the boundaries of individual cities – and aim to achieve a better understanding of the underlying conditions and processes that allow for participatory, effective, accountable and future-oriented decision-making in and for cities.

These enquiries take place against a background of some major changes in urban governance, above all, the trend towards ‘urbanising’ government, alongside the re-scaling of planning functions, both part of the considerable decentralisation efforts occurring in both developing and developed countries since the 1990s. We also identify a shift towards a broader coalition of private and civil society actors – replacing traditional hierarchical coordination of urban development with more networked forms of governance – while acknowledging the critiques of these shifts and the questions they raise around the processes of decision-making and democratic legitimacy. The last two decades have clearly witnessed an increase in the role of the private sector as a result of economic globalisation, far-reaching privatisation of former state functions, the increasing importance of partnerships between public and private sectors as well as greater levels of private capital flowing into urban development, (due not least to substantial infrastructure funding gaps, recently exacerbated by severe public budget constraints in some regions of the world). We also recognise that, (well before recent trends of ‘networked’ governance emerged), there have always been urban areas and aspects of urban life in several parts of the world that the state has never fully reached or formally governed.

The contemporary urban governance context is often presented as a realm of opportunity. Many commentators have identified cities as a favourable arena for collective decision-making, taking advantage of the proximity between citizens and their government, a more progressive general public and a governance geography that can represent functional boundaries rather than historic, geopolitical demarcations. As Joan Clos points out in his essay, local governments have the unique potential to build state-society relations, deliver services and ensure equitable access to citizenship. At the same time, as Neil Brenner suggests, in current conditions of urbanisation, these system boundaries for cities are situated within much wider global urbanisation processes.

The current urban context presents a range of uncertainties and risks, especially in rapidly urbanising regions: it is widely acknowledged that the world has entered a more volatile period of political, social, economic and environmental conditions. While cities have always been associated with significant complexities and uncertainties, these may now be amplified by technological disruption and new types of challenges; from climate change to economic crises, health pandemics to new forms of crime.

A number of the essays in this newspaper take in a consideration of these emerging challenges. Henk Ovink outlines optimistically the process of building coalitions to create resilience, based on his experience with ‘Rebuild by Design’, a programme that emerged after Hurricane Sandy hit New York. Austin Zeiderman discusses conflicted claims around Bajamar, a hotly-contested waterfront settlement in Buenaventura, Columbia. In Bangalore, Malini Ranganathan points to the potential of citizen activism in highlighting the links between flood risk and land development in the city.

At this point, the extent to which city institutions are equipped to address such risks and challenges – and whether this could ever be adjusted appropriately – remains unclear. Some are universal issues, affecting all cities: these relate to their institutional capacities, participation and leadership skills, and strategic planning and foresight – in essence, their ability to facilitate decision-making while recognising urban complexities, asymmetries of political power, pervasive uncertainties and a range of other barriers to more effective urban governance.

In his overview of global urban governance and city leadership, Greg Clark points out that many institutional hurdles remain – including low levels of autonomy and fragmented governance – making it more difficult to plan for the future. In the context of the United States, Gerald Frug argues that a better coordination of local responsiveness and state policy requires reform in city governance. In Delhi, Asher Ghertner considers uncertainties within the city government itself, whose policies and responses vary depending on the specific actors and situations involved.

To an overwhelming degree, our physical environments and settlement structures are co-produced by the urban policies of cities and other tiers of government – and this shaping of the spatial characteristics of cities is a central lens through which we discuss the governing of urban futures, a focus which also reflects the particular role of spatial planning within the social sciences. These planning and policy interventions have extremely long-term ramifications, as they breed path-dependencies linked not only to human-made physical structures (which can last for centuries themselves) but also because they come along with secondary social, institutional and economic lock-in effects.

At a time when global urban land is projected to almost triple over a period of just 30 years (2000 to 2030), governments around the world continue to face critical decisions about urban development and related futures. As Ananya Roy pertinently argues – through an analysis of the politics of industrialisation in West Bengal – land is the question. Saskia Sassen also refers to significance of land, especially how changes in the ownership of land to more private actors and larger agglomerations is having a detrimental impact on what she calls ‘city-ness’, i.e. the quality of urban life. Yue Zhang outlines how, in China, two types of land ownership (urban land publicly-owned by the state vs. rural land collectively-owned by villagers) are producing increased informality at a time of rapid urbanisation.

Processes of urbanisation raise a number of questions. Where and where not to build in order to accommodate projected population growth? How to agree on the desired social and economic activities, and what to construct in order to enable them? What kind of transport infrastructure to develop? How to ensure sufficient and long-term provision of fresh water, energy and food? What kind of sewage, recycling and waste collection systems to implement? How to connect the city with its regional hinterland and the rest of the world? Most of these questions are directly linked to the physical development of cities – a primary area of political engagement for urban governance, and a policy realm where cities and city governments are well-placed to facilitate decision-making and implementation. Strategic infrastructure development is key to the future development of cities, and the planning, financing and implementation of urban infrastructures are among the few policy instruments where the state has considerable control over shaping urban development in the long term. However, as Jonathan Silver relates in his analysis of waste management infrastructure in Mbale, Uganda, new forms of global financing can also further complicate the ability of local governments to deliver infrastructure. And as Edgar Pieterse suggests in his discussion of the ‘Corridors of Freedom’ project in Johannesburg, even when the state has strategic plans and strong projects, long-term imperatives are difficult to invoke in the current era of instant communication and short-term gratification.

The implications that changes in information and communications technology have for urban governance and city identity are explored several of the essays here. In Karachi, Sobia Kaker outlines how Twitter and SMS are increasingly being used by citizens to navigate the insecurity of the city. Adam Greenfield applauds the repurposing of and Facebook in creative citizen-led initiatives such as Occupy Sandy in New York and at el Campo de Cabada in Madrid, but is also cautious about the use of certain technologies by the state. Conversely, Jagan Shah speaks optimistically of the ways in which technology can be used to improve cities and urban governance in India.

We have chosen to convene this Urban Age conference on governing urban futures in Delhi, convinced that India is a particularly appropriate context for our discussion. The world’s largest democracy is currently undergoing dramatic shifts from rural to urban activities, with a projected increase of 250 million urban dwellers by 2030. Sanjeev Sanyal’s essay highlights the dynamism of migration to cities as a means for opportunity and social mobility in India.  However, urban governance is frequently singled out as a key concern for Indian cities, and some argue that critical reforms are overdue, as Arvind Panagariya makes clear in his essay with respect to land markets. While India has had constitutional changes and national policy efforts aimed at decentralisation, these have not resulted in any substantial changes on the ground. As Isher Ahluwalia emphasises, in order to fulfil its potential, decentralisation will also need to be accompanied by substantive capacity-building and training for local administration.

Government at all levels also struggles with highly departmentalised governance structures, often leading to fragmented policy initiatives, which have particularly adverse effects in the context of urban development: insufficient water, waste and electricity infrastructure, congestion and pollution being the most commonly cited problems. But the current developmental pressures might provide fertile ground for India’s ingenuity to continue developing institutional contexts capable of addressing an urban condition more extreme than that of most other regions in the world. It is therefore also unlikely that a successful reform agenda will be able to simply refer to systems of urban government elsewhere. Reforms for urban governance in India will need to remain sensitive to the country’s rural contexts and constituencies.

City governments in India clearly need to be given more power and also to be made more accessible and accountable to their citizens, as Charles Correa argues powerfully in his essay. The challenges that cities face in today’s interconnected world, are far too complex for one-dimensional solutions. If as Richard Sennett suggests, the urban challenge of today is acknowledging and coping with disorder, then India, as it embarks on major urbanisation initiatives for its future, must also build on its strengths: the flexibility and adaptability of its urban conditions.

In cities in India and throughout the world, academics, planners and policy-makers are still grappling with the question that Peter Hall raised over fifty years ago: how should cities be governed in order to plan for their futures? The contributions to this newspaper alone indicate that there is much debate on these issues, from what governance implies to how the urban is defined. Yet, from the different perspectives in the essays that follow, four key trends and themes emerge for what will be critical in shaping our urban futures. Globalisation, particularly economic
globalisation through the links of trade and the flows of capital and investment, is affecting cities throughout the world. Technological change, especially the revolution in ICT, is changing the nature of all human interactions but also of state-society relations. There is increasing inequality in most cities and increasing informality in many. And all cities are confronting the existential threats presented by climate change. Each of these trends has significant implications for the governance of cities. At the same time, urban governments face fundamental choices about how to respond to these trends, and what is decided now will be critical in steering both urban and global futures.


Philipp Rode is Senior Research Fellow and Executive Director, LSE Cities. Priya Shankar is India Lead for Urban Age (LSE Cities and AHS).