The city-national interface

Academics (Moir et al., 2014; Parnell & Simon, 2014) and donors (World Bank, 2009; OECD, 2015; UN-Habitat, 2015d) agree that effective urban governance depends not only on local institutions and actors but also on the framework set by national governments that establishes a connection between the city and broader regional and national development. (See the New Urban Agenda, 2016.) Only when national policies foster favourable policy environments can city-level initiatives be effective.

The responsibilities of local governments differ across countries and cities, with structure and organisation influenced by the historical, social and political context. National governments allocate responsibilities to the various levels of government, designating territorial jurisdictions, establishing electoral arrangements, designing internal management structures and creating appropriate accountability mechanisms.

National policies can incentivise certain actions, helping guide urbanisation and urban growth trajectories in sustainable and inclusive ways. This involves the creation of national frameworks that articulate an urban vision outlining how to arrange resources and institutions (Parnell & Simon, 2014: 238). Neither centralised nor fully decentralised models offer a panacea for urban governance challenges (UNESCAP & UN-Habitat, 2015). Greater attention needs to be paid to developing institutional arrangements that work in specific national and urban contexts. For a typology of urban governance arrangements see Slack and Côté (2014: 10–21).

Clarke Alvarez et al. (2008) note that the evolution of cities requires policies that focus on the ‘whole’ urbanisation process rather than on individual cities. The notion of a ‘systems of cities’ acknowledges that it is the relationship among cities, their comparative and complementary expertise, and their evolution in relation to other urban and rural areas that should be the focus of national policy. National policies are needed to guide and support spatial development and ensure that urbanisation is actively managed (see, for example, Box 1 on Sri Lanka’s national urban vison). A growing body of research highlights the extent to which complex flows and interactions of people, production, commodities and natural resources etc. link urban and rural areas and intermediate locations (see Topic Guide on Building Reciprocal Rural-Urban Linkages, Allen et al., 2015).

Challenges and opportunities in balancing the focus on cities and nations include the following (Moir et al., 2014: 22):

  • National governments in countries with a dominant city typically seek to accelerate the development and competitiveness of secondary and tertiary cities to rebalance economies and minimise regional disparities.
  • National governments with multiple large cities seek to promote the growth of less competitive cities and achieve connectivity and collaboration. Imbalances may affect national unity and stability -g. the development of certain urban areas over others may increase tensions where cities represent different ethnic populations.
  • National governments in countries with polycentric regions need to ensure that cities within their national systems develop complementary rather than competing specialisations. To be (more) internationally competitive, cities in a given region should consider working together in clusters.

Box 1: Sri Lanka’s national urban vision – Mahinda Chintana

The Mahinda Chintana framework articulates Sri Lanka’s urban vision. It seeks to develop a system of competitive, environmentally sustainable, well-linked cities clustered in five metro regions and nine metro cities. It focuses on ensuring consistent productivity growth in the Colombo Metropolitan Region.

The aim is to connect all urban areas so they can grow and evolve into an integrated system, connecting the five metro regions with district and provincial capitals and towns. The framework notes limitations among urban local authorities, leading to inefficient service provision, and the current lack of integration of sectoral and urban plans. Responsibility for service provision is fragmented among central government agencies and two parallel systems of government (devolved and deconcentrated).

The vision calls for institutional and policy reforms to leverage the economic benefits of improved connectivity and urban infrastructure. Its priorities are:

  • preventing the spread of informal settlements on the periphery of cities;
  • removing constraints on the supply of land and housing finance;
  • providing well-targeted housing assistance and livelihood programmes; and
  • repositioning authorities as competent and accountable service providers with proper financial/human resources

Urban development in Sri Lanka has had both winners and losers. The Ministry of Defence plays a leading role through the Urban Development Authority. Colombo has seen a programme of improvement, which started with a ‘war’ on alleged underworld figures. It has included the eviction of hawkers and the creation of new leisure areas, and now seems to involve the clearance of sub-standard housing.

Sources: UN-Habitat (2012a); Moir et al. (2014: 31-32); Amarasuriya & Spencer (2015).


Decentralisation of responsibilities to local governments has been identified as a means of rebalancing relations between cities and national government, making urban government more responsive to local contexts and actors (Topic Guide on Decentralisation and Local Government, Rao et al., 2014). Decentralisation is assumed to have a positive relationship with democracy, political reform, participation, empowerment, urban development, fiscal and economic development, accountability and capacity-building (Smoke, 2003). For dynamic, responsible and responsive leadership to emerge at the local level, an institutional framework is required that devolves responsibilities, including revenue-generating and decision-making powers (Crook & Manor, 1998; Blair, 2000).

Ensuring good working relationships between central, regional and local government is important. Unfortunately, mistrust often characterises these relations. A common source of tension is the control exerted by central government and the accountability expected at regional and local levels (Rao et al., 2014). Ensuring that accountability and coordination mechanisms facilitate balanced and harmonious central/regional/local relations is a difficult but important task.

It is difficult to determine whether decentralisation has been a positive or a negative force. In many contexts, inadequate legal frameworks and institutional and financial capacity have impeded effective decentralisation and the emergence of effective urban governance (UN-Habitat, 2015d). Many national governments are rhetorically committed to decentralisation, but are influenced by (Devas et al., 2004):

  • the degree to which their right to govern is contested;
  • concern regarding the development of autonomous opposition power bases;
  • concern that local decisions may undermine central policy aims; and
  • concern regarding inadequate local administrative capacity.