What is urban governance?

Urban governance refers to how government (local, regional and national) and stakeholders decide how to plan, finance and manage urban areas. It involves a continuous process of negotiation and contestation over the allocation of social and material resources and political power. It is, therefore, profoundly political, influenced by the creation and operation of political institutions, government capacity to make and implement decisions and the extent to which these decisions recognise and respond to the interests of the poor. It encompasses a host of economic and social forces, institutions and relationships. These include labour markets, goods and services; household, kin and social relationships; and basic infrastructure, land, services and public safety (Devas et al., 2004: 1). Large gaps often exist between poor and better-off urban residents in terms of access to social, economic and political opportunities (particularly decision-making) and the ability to participate in, and leverage, the benefits associated with urban living. According to Slack and Côté (2014:7), urban governance:

  • plays a critical role in shaping the physical and social character of urban regions;
  • influences the quantity and quality of local services and efficiency of delivery;
  • determines the sharing of costs and distribution of resources among different groups; and
  • affects residents’ ability to access local government and engage in decision-making, influencing local government accountability and responsiveness to citizen demands.

Urban governance involves a range of actors and institutions; the relationships among them determine what happens in the city. In managing urban transformations, government (at all levels) need to play a strategic role in forging partnerships with and among key stakeholders (UNESCAP & UN-Habitat, 2010: 211–12; 2015).

While city government is the largest and most visible urban governance actor, much of what affects the life chances of the urban poor lies outside the control of city administrations. Instead, it is the market and private businesses, agencies of the central state or the collective voluntary action of civil society that determine the daily experiences of urban dwellers.

See diagram of urban governance actors and institutions (in Brown 2015: 5; adapted from Devas et al., 2004: 25).