Elements of effective urban governance: introduction

Key messages

Effective urban governance depends on four core elements:

  • The city-national interface: Effective urban governance depends not only on local institutions and actors, but also on the framework set by national governments that links the city and broader regional and national development. However, in many contexts, inadequate institutional frameworks have impeded effective urban governance.
  • Municipal capacity: Expanding municipal capacity to plan, manage and finance urban growth is a fundamental component of effective urban governance. It is important that each level of government has sufficient capacity to ensure that physical and socio-economic planning processes are well-coordinated, legally enforced, inclusive and cross-sectoral. However, many municipalities lack the skills, capacity and resources to meet their obligations.
  • The role of the private sector: The private sector is a key stakeholder in both urban and economic development.  In addition to providing jobs, it can also be engaged in the design, construction and maintenance of infrastructure (for example through PPPs) and in service provision. However, where the private sector has contributed to improvements, it has often been at the expense of universal coverage, with low-income areas excluded.
  • Political systems and institutions: Urban governance is 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. The most vulnerable are often excluded or ignored in decision-making processes. There are large gaps between poor and better-off urban residents’ access to social, economic and political opportunities, and in their ability to participate in, and leverage, the benefits of urban living.

In addition, key political economy constraints in urban areas include the governance framework, the political agency of the urban poor, opportunities for collective action, service delivery dynamics, the prevalence of conflict and violence, and the experience of vulnerable groups.

There is no single, universally-applicable model of urban governance – institutions and decision-making models reflect local context and history. However, effective urban governance involves: the city-national interface, municipal capacity, the role of the private sector, and political systems and institutions.

Urban areas are complex, and capable and visible leadership is critical. For large cities and city-regions, governance models with a directly elected mayor appear to have greater potential to provide a coherent city vision, mobilise coalitions of stakeholders and offer greater accountability to citizens.

A number of approaches developed to navigate the politicised nature of development may be applicable to urban contexts. These include drivers of change, political economy analysis, problem-driven iterative adaption, flexible and adaptive programming and political settlements analysis. These approaches highlight the importance of supporting locally-led solutions to locally-defined problems, and underline that reforms, policies and programmes are more likely to be effective when actors and communities view them as legitimate (Booth & Unsworth, 2014).