This blog was first posted in February 2020.
After the pomp of the opening ceremony, the 10th World Urban Forum got involved in two critical issues.
How to plan and manage metropolitan areas?
An event organised by ISOCARP focused on this urgent theme. A range of leading figures from organisations that included the World Bank, the OECD and politicians from the Barcelona metropolitan region and others across the world. Several points emerged over the couple of hours. There was agreement that political will and strong leadership was needed, though cynics might suggets that politicians would say that wouldn’t they? Similarly, planners were in little doubt that effective metropolitan scale planning was needed, which in turn required good data and mechanisms for implementation. A further commentary stressed the need not just to bring together the array of municipalities in the region, but also to connect provincial and central governments into the processes of metropolitan governance. Given the scale and significant part these huge cities play in national economies and for addressing the climate emergency, this clearly makes sense – providing all the stakeholders do pull together. Aye, there’s the rub.
More fundamental perhaps was the view that, by its very nature, the process by which functional metropolitan regions spread, at a great rate in many countries, is disruptive. Undoubtedly the traditional structures and forms of public administration are over-ridden, new institutions have to be invented and new styles of governance. So far so good, but I felt the discussion failed to pinpoint some important issues.
For the last 25 years now the World Bank, OECD, UN-Habitat and mere academics (including myself) have preached the gospel of agglomeration economies. Big cities create a better environment for business which in turn helps urbanise what was often a largely rural population and in the process create new economic opportunities (espcially for women) and take people out of poverty. The message to planners and politiicans was “don’t try to constrain urban growth: it will happen anyway and is largely a good thing”. Then we add that there are also some diseconomies of agglomeration – pollution, congestion etc – which also need to be addressed.
This agglomeration story was not always easy to sell – neither the UK nor the Scottish governments, for example, have ever built national urban policy around it, even if the UK has tacitly sought to boost mega-region growth around London. However, two things gave the arguments momentum. First, they were propagated in the long 1990s – that era of growth that ran until the 2007 crash (though the strong growth has continued in many transition countries where the agglomeration message has particular resonance). Second, the case for governments facilitating market-led growth fitted very well with the reality of weak local governments in many rapidly urbanising countries, and the convergence of some western countries towards this model as austerity policies were driven forward.
So what was missing from the discussion in the WUF? Basically, two related things. First, the diseconomies are no longer a sideshow. We now know that the air pollution that hangs over so many cities is literally lethal. It is not simply caused by the spread of the city, but other things being equal, bigger cities and bigger urban areas (especially at low car-dependent densities) certainly adds to the problem. China, which has done agglomeration on steroids for a generation has now recognised this as a serious issue. Similarly, the recognition (however reluctant) that the climate emergency is real and demands action, makes it harder to shrug off soil sealing, building on flood planes, deforestation etc as mere collateral damage. The agglomeration economics of tourism is also now facing a backlash as residents in the hot spots vent their anger at “overtourism” and the take-over of their city. Traffic congestion is stangling many rapidly growing cities.
The second reason for a rethink is the issue of inequality within a metro-region. There is often an implicit assumption that the economic benefits will trickle down, and futhermore that the creation of metropolitan scale governance will be a means to tackle inequalities. Maybe, but I am less and less sure that the evidence supports this. The nature of agglomeration means that public money is “best” spent by backing winners in the cause of competitiveness. This tends to mean that the secondary centres within a region not only fear a loss of identity as they are swept up in a larger unit, but also lose out on the big ticket items, e.g. new rail hubs, arts centres etc. etc. The strong private/quasi-private institutions are well placed to capture metropolitan spend, e.g. universities in City and Regional Deals in UK. To make the new metropolitan politics even more fraught, a lot of of the decisions at that scale are about the kind of developments that are necessary but nobody wants near them – waste disposal facilities, sewerage works, new motorways etc. The very “rationality in competitiveness” that underpins metropolitan growth and governance means that such developments can be, or at least be perceived to be, top-down impositions on poorer settlement or valued natural environments.
What I think all this means is that it is now important to give much more attention to the diseconomies of agglomeration, and to recognise the contested nature of the orthodox path to growth.
Finally, I also went into a session led by Rwanda, in the run-up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting there in June. As I am writing this late at night and it is already a long blog, I cannot do justice to the wide range of rich ideas that are being pursued by Rwanda. So let me just focus on one issue, and that is affordable housing. Housing in Kigali, the capital, is very expensve and most people live in unplanned areas. We heard of ways to tackle this through design or new financial instruments, However, the underlying assumption was that owner occupation should be a viable option for as many as possible, and linked to this was a focus on the equation between the cost of a house and income levels. My worry is that this was the mindset of the cheerleaders of the sub-prime housing market in the USA, which, lest we forget, crashed the banks and led to the decimation of public services. The problem at the lower end of the market is not just income levels by themselves, but the precarity and unregularity of incomes. Without welfare state structures – of which there are few in the rapidly urbanising word and a declining number elsewhere – these dangers make afforable market-based low income housing a risky proposition. Basic sites and services (being used in Kigali), like informal development more widely, have the virtue of being flexible for households whose life is lived on the edge between earning and loss of earnings, e.g. following illness, accident or new competition.
In short, it is time to do some critical thinking about how we plan and manage our cities. The value of a World Urban Forum is that it can bring together an amazing amount of experiences reflecting the inter-connectedness of today’s diverse but threatend planet.