Planning and regulation

In contexts of rapid urbanisation and increasing decentralisation, municipal governments face challenges for which their structures, processes and capacities are sometimes inadequate. Rapid urbanisation has generated growing demand for urban services and infrastructure. Simultaneously, national policies and laws are assigning ever more responsibilities to municipal government, devolving planning and fiscal powers that can enhance their ability to respond to local needs and priorities.

The effectiveness of municipal government depends on locally available resources, skills, structures and management processes. However, local governments often have weak capacity in areas such as planning and regulatory control, finance, human and administrative capacity and service delivery.

Planning has the potential to play a transformational role in improving the quality of life of urban communities and tackling poverty. It can enhance well-being and inclusion, facilitate access to services, amenities and economic opportunities, and empower communities to have a say about their future. Governance determines the legal and administrative processes that underpin planning, as well as the roles of formal and informal actors who shape urban change (Brown, 2015: 4). In many developing countries, effective formal planning is challenging because of a lack of up-to-date mapping; weak development control and enforcement powers; out-of-date planning processes; and limited public knowledge of or compliance with land-use regulation.  As a result, cities often develop in non-inclusive ways. Further, globalisation, deregulation and free market policies often shift decision-making powers to the private sector.

Where governance and oversight are weak, much urban development takes place outside formal frameworks (see Topic Guide on Planning for Sustainable and Inclusive Cities in the Global South, Brown, 2015). Several problems arise from ‘unplanned development’, including the expense of the retrospective provision of infrastructure and the increased cost of providing water, roads and sewerage in low-density layouts. The urban poor may pay high costs for informal access to land and services, while government administrations miss out on potential tax revenue. In many cities, plans for informal housing areas seldom consider broader plans for the urban region. Community-based organisations (CBOs) are often weak, lacking the ability to influence decisions, and are not incorporated into the planning process. In addition, planning and regulation generally fail to formulate specific strategies to improve or redevelop informal housing areas with minimum disruption to existing homes and economic activities.

The social aims of planning have often been overlooked in a greater focus on technical professionalism. The poor are often excluded from planning and decision-making processes critical to ensuring that cities meet their specific needs. Patel (2013: 31) comments that the urban poor have legitimate claims to the planning process and have a constructive role to play. Effective urban governance requires planners to seek legitimacy for plans and for city dwellers to be able to hold them accountable throughout the planning process.

The potential of urban planning to address major urban challenges is considerable, but is often undermined by the dominant market paradigm, weak capacity and limited recognition of the priorities of the poor. A number of challenges and opportunities associated with urban planning have been identified (see Topic Guide on Planning for Sustainable and Inclusive Cities in the Global South, Brown, 2015):

  • Urban planning can facilitate more transparent development decisions and pro-poor service provision. Where control is weak, governments should intervene selectively through problem-oriented planning that acknowledges informal processes.
  • Participation of poor communities is essential for their empowerment. However, transformative development processes depend on collaborative decision-making and an equalisation of differential power relations.
  • Strategy planning is often based on national development objectives that do not take into account local issues. While metropolitan plans may channel directions for urban growth, housing development and major infrastructure, local plans can identify potential development sites and protected areas.
  • Development regulation often assumes that development should be authorised centrally, through transparent and accountable decisions. These assumptions are unrealistic when most urban building is informal. In these contexts, development control should focus on priority areas (e.g. to identify land for housing or ensure environmental protection).
  • Action planning has led to a number of innovations that are redefining the potential for urban intervention. These include urban design and new spatial forms, participatory planning, and land regularisation and upgrading.
  • Planning for megacities poses challenges for vertical and horizontal policy coordination. Strategy should focus on key metropolitan functions such as transport infrastructure, solid waste disposal and trunk sewerage and water provision.

To strengthen planning coordination in contexts of weak governance, it is crucial to evaluate existing capacity and processes, noting the legal frameworks for planning, effectiveness of decision-making, development control, as well as appeals and enforcement (ISOCARP, 2008). Where capacity is limited the focus should be on managing developments that have significant environmental or social impact (ibid.).

Effective urban planning depends on locally appropriate solutions and integrated approaches that combine physical interventions with strengthening governance capacity (UN-Habitat, 2009: 60). According to the World Bank (2015: 36), physical and socio-economic planning processes should be well-coordinated, legally enforceable, inclusive and cross-sectoral. Key stakeholders must be involved to align plans with sector priorities and to ensure that the interests of all groups (particularly the urban poor) are considered.

Action or problem-oriented planning is one approach recommended for increasing the capacity of under-staffed and financed planning agencies. It can address a wide range of issues (including the protection of built heritage, small-area planning, and upgrading and renewal), identify relevant local resources, and initiate locally-based development programmes to improve the urban environment and economy. Urban action planning also focuses on the institutional change required to plan, finance and implement urban development programmes. Planning tools such as master planning or zoning, which have proved inflexible in dealing with urban change, are being replaced by innovative strategies such as planning agreements between local stakeholders and tradable development rights. However, establishing transparency and resolving conflicts over new instruments remains a challenge (Brown, 2015: 25–6).