Why does urban governance matter?

Managing cities and urban growth is one of the defining challenges of the twenty-first century. If managed well, cities can act as engines of growth and provide inhabitants with better job opportunities and improved healthcare, housing, safety and social development. Further, cities can contribute to national growth through increased revenue generation and political stability, as well as playing a role in post-conflict reconciliation. Conversely, cities that are poorly planned, managed and governed can become centres of poverty, inequality and conflict.

The challenge is most acute in the poorest and most fragile states, especially those of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Expanding urban populations are straining already overburdened and ill-equipped local government, planning mechanisms, infrastructure and urban finance (Bhatkal et al., 2015). In many areas, the population has increased faster than the capacity of planners to provide houses and infrastructure and of local businesses to provide jobs (Moretti, 2014). This has led to the emergence of large informal settlements, crime, an expanded informal economy, and increased social tensions.

The well-being of the urban poor can be improved by facilitating access to economic opportunities, supportive social networks and greater access to land, infrastructure and services. Whether and how these are available to the poor depends to a significant extent on urban governance – i.e. local political processes (informal and formal); the influence of the civil society organisations (CSOs) representing the poor; and the capacity of city government to respond (Devas et al., 2004). Outcomes depend on a number of factors, including the nature of local democratic institutions and processes, the resources available and the ability of the poor to organise and articulate demands.

Ineffective urban governance affects the poor disproportionately. In particular, oppressive regulation of informal enterprises and settlements can negatively impact upon livelihood opportunities. Devas et al. (2004) and Brown (2015) suggest that the design of the city-level political system, including democratic structures with checks and balances between executive and legislature and periodic elections, must be supplemented by broader participation to ensure that decisions reflect the needs of the poor.

Maximising the potential of urban areas requires institutionalising mechanisms of coordination, planning and accountability among diverse stakeholders (Fox & Goodfellow, 2016). However, many city governments face severe capacity constraints, lack the vision to address urban growth, and need better information/data on poverty, the environment and services. Three key messages emerge that underline why urban governance matters (Venables, 2015):

  • The scale and high population density of cities enable economic and social interaction to occur more frequently and effectively. This creates the potential for cities to be productive and to offer inhabitants a better quality of life.
  • To unlock this potential, key issues surrounding land, transport, public finance and regulation need to be addressed. Making the city work requires investment in residential, commercial and industrial structures supported by a combination of effective land markets, appropriate regulation, good public services, adequate public finance and transparent and accountable city level political systems.
  • Harnessing urbanisation requires smart policy and hard work (i.e. effective urban governance), and the implications of failure are long term.