Key policy challenges for urban governance: introduction

Key messages

  • Urban governance is often neither inclusive nor participatory. There are large gaps between the poor and non-poor in their access to social, economic and political opportunities and ability to participate in and leverage the benefits of urban living. Governance frameworks need to encourage policy coordination at local and regional levels and include the voices and participation of the poor.
  • The importance of the informal sector to urban economies and to the livelihoods of the poor is often not fully understood, and limited attention is given to working with and not against the informal sector.
  • Urban authorities generally fail to provide adequate access to services for the poor. There is scope for improvement by, for example, breaking down barriers to collective action, creating incentives for resourcing service provision and introducing appropriate pricing and revenue models.
  • While cities are inherently sites of conflict, effective urban governance arrangements can reconcile differing views by encouraging debate and the formation of broad coalitions of interest that promote developmental activities.
  • Migration is often seen as contributing to shortages of housing, infrastructure and services as well as tensions between migrant and host communities. Migration policies can be improved by paying attention to the nature of migration, the vulnerabilities of migrants and host communities, and facilitating the participation of migrants in civic and political life.
  • Urban areas are major contributors to climate change and are central in addressing it. Policymakers need to better integrate international and national climate strategies with regional and local urban policy frameworks.

Cities in both developed and developing countries face an array of economic, environmental, social and political challenges. These challenges are especially pronounced in urban areas of the global south where economic development is contributing to the rapid spatial and demographic expansion of urban areas, and local government structures are struggling to keep pace. City boundaries and administrative demarcations have struggled to adapt as the ‘economic city’ has become much larger than the ‘administrative city’. With outdated institutional and territorial demarcations, public interests are poorly represented and the urban poor are often geographically, economically and socially excluded and most vulnerable to challenges. This section outlines key urban governance challenges and highlights potential tools, strategies and policies for addressing them.

Cross-cutting themes underpinning urban governance include:

  • Understanding of the local context. Developing effective solutions to complex challenges requires an understanding of local economics, politics and social relations, as well as informal and formal processes and structures. Sound political economy analysis supports this and identifies key impediments to action.
  • Thinking and working politically. Strategies are considered to work best and be least liable to do harm when the people designing them are thinking and working politically (TWP). This requires donors to find new ways of partnering with organisations that can act creatively and flexibly to solve development problems (Booth, 2015).
  • Iterative and adaptive approaches. These approaches can respond proactively to changing local dynamics and are more suited to the complexity of urban development challenges. Urban governance involves a large number of interacting factors and actors, making desirable outcomes difficult to achieve and predict. Prescriptive, one-size fits all strategies are likely to fail as they may not be relevant to the local context (Booth & Unsworth, 2014).
  • Listening to the urban poor. Adopting innovative means of creating space for their participation in decision-making processes is pivotal (Mitlin, 2006). While this can be challenging given limited resources and expertise within urban government, not doing so risks leaving behind those who are already disenfranchised and discriminated against.