A wide ranging international review of national urban policies highlights the importance to national development of coordinated planning and well-functioning urban areas. Urban planning is seen as an economic imperative. “The argument
that well-functioning urban areas can help to unleash the development potential of nations is more persuasive than the argument that urban policy is about alleviating poverty and meeting basic needs”, says the report.
The review was undertaken by UN-Habitat and Cities Alliance. It explains why there is so much interest in urban policies today. it looks at the history of urban policies, and then has a commentary on national urban policies in 21 mainly low- and middle-income countries that include India, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico, but also Australia. This is particularly valuable because information about the urban policies of many of the countries covered is still not easily accessible even on the internet, and sometimes what is available is not in English.
Why urban planning matters
In many countries the last 30 years have been a period in which the importance of urban planning has been diminished. There are a range of reasons for this – the rise of neo-liberalism and its hostility to state regulation, lack of capacity in the face of rapid urbanisation and the failure of traditional technocratic physical planning paradigms bequeathed from colonial times.
However, the costs of this combination of weak, usually outdated physical plans and strong urban growth are now all too apparent. The spatial arrangements and complex ownership strucutres within unplanned informal settlements make upgrading to provide basic infrastructure very difficult. Millions are living in unauthorised dwellings in environmentally sensitive and/or hazardous locations.
It’s taken time and there have been plenty of disasters along the way, but the basic tenet of urban planning – that it is better to plan than not to plan – is finally regaining some traction. “Haphazard and unregulated urban development can damage sources of food supply, water catchments and other natural systems. Sprawling low-income housing estates built on cheap peripheral land are difficult to convert into rounded settlements with amenities and access to jobs because of their marginal locations…. the cumulative effect of uncoordinated business and household location decisions is bottlenecks in public infrastructure, gridlock on road networks, energy and water shortages, and increased risks of environmental damage from pollution.” It’s not rocket science; it’s Town Planning 101, week one, “Why do we need to plan urban development?”
There is more in this vein, but the game changer over the past decade has been the realisation that urban enviroments offer significant economic opportunities, provided they are able to function efficiently and the negative spill-overs of growth can be properly managed. It’s the agglomeration economies, stupid! Access to labour, services and knowledge: concentrating people, firms, infrastructure and institutions in one place saves money and fosters innovation.
Planning – the problem or the solution/
It must be admitted that there have been strands within orthodox planning practice that were – still are – hostile to this understanding. Generations of planning students spent long hours practising lettering and drawing “wouldn’t it be nice if…” designs without being given much, if any, understanding of urban economic geography or the sustainability of livelihoods. Containment of city growth became a familiar, popular but ultimately self-defeating aim of planning practice across much of the globe. Demographic growth and rural to urban migration proved stronger than the regulatory power or will of weak states.
In downgrading planning, rather than re-inventing it, governments were throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Growing cities need infrastructure and places for new arrivals to live and new businesses to set up. Decisions about the use and development of land have to be transparent and fair, with respect for the environment, social inclusion and equity. It’s not easy – high grade professional knowledge and skills are required to get it right, not least because local circumstances can be crucial for successful policy making and delivery.
A to-do list
The report sets out some lessons from the research. They could be expressed as a to-do list for governments:
- Take a coordinated approach to planning and managing cities and towns.
- Develop legislation, institutions and financial instruments to design and build more productive, liveable and resilient towns and cities.
- Devolve powers and responsibilities to city authorities and work with them.
- Manage peripheral expansion with the aim of creating compact and inclusive urban growth.
- Increase the quantity and quality of land developed in the urban core and along transport corridors.
- Prepare land and infrastructure in advance rather than retro-fitting: recognise and upgrade informal settlements.
- Take a broad territorial perspective on metropolitan regions with a focus on connectivity between cities and rural areas.
Of course, the generalities have to be adapted to local situations, legacies and challenges. However, with the third global summit on human settlements, Habitat III, now on the horizon these are messages that planning ministries should be urging their political masters to address. If the newly-elected UK government is serious in its rhetoric about creating a “Northern powerhouse” this is also a useful checklist for them, just as it is for the Scottish government with its aspirations to make Scotland a better and more competitive place.
it says that “explicit objectives, targets and instruments for urban development can help to give cities and towns the focused attention they need to tackle their complex challenges.”
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