What cities tell us

Global comparative research on urban governance is confronted with a substantial data challenge. Regardless of the ever-increasing availability of information on institutional arrangements in individual cities, knowledge and methodologies to capture and compare the wide spectrum of different urban governance systems is limited. The global survey on urban governance – undertaken by LSE Cities in partnership with UN Habitat and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), and supported by the MacArthur Foundation – addresses this data challenge and explores new ways of communicating and ‘mapping’ urban governance for public dissemination, comparative policy and research analysis. A selection of the initial findings are presented here.

The information presented here is a snapshot of the results from a set of 50 city governments that took part in a pilot survey. The survey includes information from five continents and 30 countries, with stronger representation of cities from the Americas and Europe. 25 cities have higher income economies, and 29 cities have populations of over 500,000 people. The survey considered a range of urban governance issues, such as political power, budget and financing, multi-level governance, participation and accountability, strategic planning and institutional change.

The influence of citizens

what-cities-tell-us_citizen-influenceCitizens have the ability to influence local policies in multiple ways. Voting in elections is the most common and was reported by 44 of the cities. The vast majority of city governments included in this survey are governed by an executive mayor who is directly elected versus appointed or indirectly elected mayors. Of the 50 cities, only five have reported not having a mayor at all. ‘Voting’ is followed by ‘public consultation’, as a further means of influencing policy, and then (with an equal number of mentions) ‘online engagement’ and ‘formal petitions’. Interestingly, a large number of cities also stated that participatory budgeting is one of the processes through which citizens can influence local policies. Some of the cities which have given more detailed replies noted that that youth councils and joint planning processes are integral to how citizens participate in local policies. The survey also found that the larger the city in terms of population, the less capacity citizens have to influence local policies, suggesting that while larger cities may profit from economies of scale and economic resilience, they at the same may offer reduced levels of subsidiarity.

Governing different urban policy sectors

what-cities-tell-us_leadershipSubstantial differences in urban governance across different cities exist with regards to the sectoral distribution of political power. The survey reveals a clear tendency whereby certain policy sectors are exposed to greater political powers at the urban level while others are more centralised at the level of state or national governments. The survey results show that city level governments take greater responsibility for spatial planning, culture, utilities and transport – and are far less involved with other policy sectors, such as health and education. Other sectors that are more greatly influenced from the local level are social services, policing and security. The ability to lead on specific policy sectors also directly relates to questions of budget and revenue streams. Cities which do not have the budget to administer certain policy sectors tend to also lack executive powers in these areas. Some cities have pointed out that they are under additional influence from regional and provincial bodies. The local policies of European cities are also strongly influenced by supranational bodies such as the European Union. Other cities noted the importance of public consultations as well as NGOs and public organisations.

City financing

Cities are financed through a wide variety of different sources, including their own local revenues as well as state, national and in some cases even supranational transfers. The survey identified four dominant types based on their dependence on funds coming from different levels of government: state (or region)-dependent cities; national dependent cities; financially independent cities; and, cities which receive funding from multiple sources.

what-cities-tell-us_budget-by-tierCities which are heavily dependent on state (or regional) resources include Artik (Armenia), Ghent (Belgium) and Istanbul (Turkey). 50%-85% of the total budget in these cities comes from the state level. Cities which are mainly funded through the national government include La Paz (Bolivia), Madrid (Spain) and Mexico City (Mexico). These cities receive between 50% and 95% funding through the central government. In financially independent cities, less than 50% of their funds come from the state, national or supranational tiers of government. These include Gothenburg (Sweden), Montreal (Canada) as well as Philadelphia (U.S.A). The last category includes cities with a budget funded through multiple sources, including several combinations of state, national as well as supranational sources. Included here are cities such as Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Port Harcourt (Nigeria) and Villa el Salvador (Peru). Due to the relatively small sample size, it is difficult to identify significant regional trends. European cities reported the significance of the regional and provincial funds that come into the city.

The survey further identified four main sources of revenue for local budgets. These include taxes (property tax, income tax), user fees (tariffs), sale of assets (including land) and other sources. The majority of cities raise over 50% of their income from taxes. European cities noted that some funding streams come from provincial and regional sources, and also directly from the European Union.

Who is leading on urban transport?

what-cities-tell-us_transport-leadershipGiven the particular relevance of urban transport and the governance of its transport sub-sectors, the survey illustrates the sector’s substantial exposure to multi-level governance. While city governments tend to lead on small- and medium-scale public infrastructure initiatives – such as public space improvements, cycle paths, footpaths and smaller roads – large-scale infrastructure tends to be controlled by state and national governments, often requiring substantial external investments. Both highway infrastructure and operations and rail-based transport are the most centralised transport sub-sectors, mainly led by national government.

Urban governance challenges

The survey asked respondents to state the three biggest governance challenges that their city faces. ‘Urban transport’ was the most often cited, identified as an issue by 35% of cities, closely followed by ‘financial resources’ and ‘employment’. Transport includes a number of issues, such as congestion, constraints on mobility and the establishment of effective public transport systems. 31% of cities stated that financial resources are a major factor constraining cities governance realities, 25% singled out employment levels (e.g. job creation and youth unemployment) and 21% referred to environment-related challenges such as pollution, the attainment of environmental targets and water and waste management issues as significant challenges. Cities from Central and South America, in particular, identified security and crime as a prime urban governance challenge. This includes cities such as Fortaleza (Brazil), Rio de Janeiro, Cartagena (Colombia) and Mexico City. A further, more region-specific challenge is unemployment, which features dominantly in cities in Europe including Ghent (Belgium), Madrid, Málaga (Spain), Tampere (Finland) and Liverpool (UK).

Governance constraints

what-cities-tell-us_governance-constraintsCity governments face many institutional constraints in managing their cities. Respondents to the survey were asked to choose from a number of options and could identify multiple constraints. The largest number of cities highlighted the unpredictability of resources as a significant governance constraint, more even than the overall lack of public funding. This underscores the problem that cities currently lack the ability to plan for future development, as they are exposed to volatile income and resources. Less prominent were concerns related to public and private sector support.

Governance disruptions

what-cities-tell-us_governance-disruptionsCities are increasingly affected by external events which often lead to significant local disruptions. The survey sought to identify cases of major disruptions that affected local government operations. 50% of cities identified the recent economic recession as a major factor which interfered with urban governance. Preliminary analysis also suggests that the population size of cities included in this survey correlates negatively with disruptions caused by the economic recession: the bigger the city, the less likely they seem to be disrupted by the economic recession. The second most frequently cited disturbance was ‘national policies which affected the local level’ and ‘institutional reforms’. A large number of cities from countries with recent civil unrest referred to political conflict as causing major disruptions to the governance of their city. These include Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Antananarivo (Madagascar), Gaza City (Palestine), Istanbul (Turkey) and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).


Our thanks to all those who took the time to respond to our survey.