In 1976, from May 31 to June 11 the first United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat I) took place in Vancouver, Canada.  The essential themes of this pioneering meeting were housing issues, the ongoing urbanization processes and the increase of slums at a global scale. Delegates from 136 governments participated in the Summit.  For the first time issues like, population growth and rapid urbanization, as well as how irrelevant many economic, social and political relationships had become, were part of a global dialogue.  It was an opportunity to identify new challenges being faced by cities across the world, and to send a warning message to governments and their local governance policies.  Habitat II was held 20 years later in 1996, on June 3-14 in Istanbul, Turkey, and it painted a more alarming picture of the 21st century cities, but it also gave voice to citizens and civil society organizations of cities.  Issues like homelessness, increasing poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, social exclusion, lack of basic infrastructure and services, and growing insecurity and violence.  Just recently this year on October 17-20, Habitat III was held in Quito, Ecuador and participating States agreed on the New Urban Agenda (NUA); a non-binding document, which will guide policies over the next 20 years with the goal of making cities safer, resilient and sustainable and their amenities more inclusive.  While cities have been part of humanity since 6,000-7,000 B.C, why in the 21st century cities have acquired a new importance?  As the wider and more complex context of city development continues to evolve rapidly, challenges have become more pronounced and evident, and there is also a renewed focus on understanding the dynamics of urban democratic governance.

Urbanization is happening at an unprecedented speed and scale, and according to UN-Habitat 3.7 billion people now live in cities. At current rates, it is estimated that by 2050, 7 billion people will live in cities.  UN-Habitat also points out that nearly one billion poor people live in urban slums and informal settlements in about 100,000 cities around the world, in dire need of clean water, energy, food, sanitation and health services.   Today 50% of human beings live in large mega cities over 10 million people (like New York City, Mexico City or Jakarta); in large cities with 5 to 10 million people (like, Chicago, Bogota or Kuala Lumpur); in medium size cities of 1 to 5 million (like Miami, Accra, Belo Horizonte); and in small cities with populations ranging between 500,000 and 1 million (like Dublin, Tegucigalpa, Vientiane). The other 50% live in cities with populations smaller than 500,000 (like Oruro, Fort Lauderdale, Plovdiv, Brunei).

Urban governance dynamics today reflect the size, variety and complexity of the cities.  Larger and more metropolitan cities have unique challenges, such as maintaining and repairing basic and more sophisticated urban infrastructure, finding solutions to avoid traffic congestions, ensuring effective delivery of essential services (trash, electricity, water, gas), and crime and violence prevention.  On the other hand, smaller urbanized cities experience other challenges, including economic stagnation, isolation, outmigration and lack of capacity and resources to deliver services.  Irrespective of size, it seems that a new challenge for democratic governance in the 21st Century is governing the diverse, growing and changing cities in the world.

As much or maybe more than national states, cities shape the daily life of a significant number of people across the world.   In effect, opportunities for wellbeing and livelihood are created in cities.  Cities are where the close to home issues are found, like housing, public transportation, quality of schools, citizen security, water and sanitation, public spaces for leisure and community life.  And these are all relevant for city dwellers.  At the same time, as I argued in a previous article, while cities have their own dynamics, they cannot ignore or escape the global stage dynamics, both the positive and negative aspects.   For example, many cities today compete globally and can take advantage of a number of opportunities to create wealth and promote human development.  But in order to be competitive, cities must have the capacity to play at the global stage otherwise they risk stagnation and missing on opportunities for prosperity.  Similarly, cities reflect the ever-changing aspirations of humans across the global, and the social and cultural differences.  This is one of the reasons, democratic governance processes in cities are particularly complex, as city governments need to manage multiple policy issues, upwardly and downwardly, and ever-changing demographic patterns.  Like nation-sates, cities today have to be prepared to respond to both “centrifugal” (outward) and “centripetal” (inward) forces.

As such, cities also face a number of endogenous challenges.  For example, at the political dimension while most cities now elect their leaders through relative transparent and fair elections, not all cities’ leadership have the same space to maneuver their own policies.  In particular, cities that are part of Unitarian and presidential systems, with predominantly centralized economic, political and administrative authority, find it more difficult to establish effective urban governance dynamics.  This is more poignant in developing countries, and countries that are consolidating their democratic transition.

Urban democratic governance is not a given, and is often nourished and built by the ideal that cities can deliver and manage basic services more efficiently, equitably, and accountably.  This idealized outcome of course is not automatic, it requires leadership, short and long term vision, an enabling normative framework, and policies that empower cities and strategically support capacity development.  In addition, given the proximity, cities are expected to be more responsive to their constituents, and generate an enabling environment for effective transparency and accountability.

However, not all cities can make the necessary investments to strengthen and/or build their capabilities to prevent and manage corruption risks.  Moreover, with increased flows of financial resources to cities and with greater authority invested in local officials over decentralized service delivery the risks for corrupt practices also expand, as well as the need to build stronger corruption risk prevention and management tools.  In this context, for urban governance to be an alternative and/or a premier policy mechanism, management of public resources becomes extremely strategic.  The strengthening of urban governance in its institutional and financial aspects requires not only planning and efficient administration of financial resources, and revenue generating strategies, but also transparency and accountability systems. Cities need to be able to articulate their own tools with those at the national levels.  It presupposes not only training of personnel, but also updating of information systems, use of appropriate technology and actively fostering transparency and accountability.

These various systems, processes, and capacities have been the targets of urban governance strengthening and reform. In many countries, the process of developing and institutionalizing these foundational elements of an urban governance system has been often slow, uneven, and in some cases support at the national levels has not been steady and/or strategic. At the same time, people who leave in cities have become better educated and informed, and are demanding better urban governance and more involvement in the decision-making process. Some of the most interesting and innovative experiment with governance occur in cities of countries as diverse as Brazil, India, the United States, Singapore, Colombia and Japan.   Whether participatory budgeting and planning, social audit, and/or use of social media for accountability, cities are given urban governance a new dynamic and hope.

What elements does urban governance include?  A recent study by Brookings suggests that the attributes of urban governance have to do with:

  • A new political and policy space that enables a different kind of democratic play, where citizens can participate in localized policy planning and policy implementation, as well as influence policy.
  • Long term and integrated planning and policy strategies, and articulating political timing with policy and governance timing.
  • Building capacity to manage multi-level governance, top-bottom, bottom-up, horizontally across sectors and vertically across policies.
  • Designing and implementing territorial strategies that build on natural environments and social capital.
  • Incorporating new technologies to promote and facilitate greater transparency, participation, and accountability.
  • Increasing political, policy and technical skills to perform the complex coordination and deal making required to lead.

In many conversations I had and continue to have with governors, mayors and local leaders from across countries, they all agree on the importance of local and urban governance.   At the same time, they are conscious about the great responsibility they have, to meet growing citizens’ expectations, and that their daily job is not easy.  It means wearing different hats to take advantage of opportunities and manage challenges.  They also recognize that a viable vision is important, but that they have to be both immediate and long-term.  Similarly, local leaders highlight management as an important tool, not only in terms of resources, but also in terms of interests and external relations. Ultimately, a combination of management, political, entrepreneurial and governance and policymaking skills are needed for urban governance.  As it is illustrated in Figure 1 below, the complexities of urban governance and the enormous challenges facing cities demand multiple skills and strategies.


The Habitat III Conference in Quito focused on the future of cities. The so-called “New Urban Agenda” was the outcome document of the Conference, and it lays out the vision of urban governance for the years to come.   Without going into much detail, the vision includes 8 major policy issues for cities:

  1. Social (housing, water and sanitation, food security, nutrition, health, education, infrastructure, mobility and air quality);
  2. Participation and civic engagement (safe and inclusive public spaces);
  3. Gender Equality (empowering all women and girls, equal rights, and ending violence)
  4. Inclusive and sustainable economic growth (harnessing local economies, making the transition from informal to formal economy);
  5. Integrated and territorial planning and development (across cities, and down and up different levels of government);
  6. Age- and gender-responsive planning and investment for sustainable, safe, and accessible urban mobility (effectively linking people, places, goods, services, and economic opportunities);
  7. Disaster risk reduction and management (reduce vulnerability, build resilience and responsiveness to natural and man-made hazards, and foster mitigation and adaptation to climate change); and
  8. Ecosystems (protect, conserve, restore, and promote clean water, natural habitats, and biodiversity to minimize their environmental impact).

While these are noble and aspirational policy areas, the larger question is whether they can be fulfilled effectively.  The short answer is that it will depend on a number of factors.  First, I think it will depend on the size of the city and in which country is located.  Not all cities are created equal and not all countries have the same conditions and/or provide the same level of city autonomy and decentralization.  Cities in Latin America for example, may have more challenges to overcome that their counterparts in Europe, because in general decentralization processes in Latin America have fallen short, as cities continue to depend heavily on central government policy influence.   Size will also matter, as smaller cities may have more institutional and financial challenges to strengthen urban governance policy areas.  Many cities are still suffering from high levels of “fragility,” and there is some evidence showing this condition can affect the prospective of urban governance.

Another Brookings study focuses on another aspect of urban governance, global cities, as sources of a vast and complex network who participate in international flows of goods, services, people, capital, and ideas, and thus make distinctive contributions to global growth and opportunity.  These so called global cities, may have the necessary institutional and financial infrastructure to operationalize the vision of Habitat III.  For example, tradable industries as critical drivers of prosperity and competitiveness; innovative capacity to develop and deploy commercial applications, start new businesses, and maintain industrial competitiveness; the stock of knowledge, skills, expertise, and capacities embedded in the labor force; and adequate infrastructure connectivity.

Ultimately, urban governance depends on the quality of governing the city, and in turn the quality of governance is linked to effective governance arrangements.  As mentioned above, cities are a complex system with many interlocking parts, thus adequate governance arrangements are essential.  These can determine economic performance, human development and management of sectoral policies (water, sanitation, transportation, climate change and adaptation).  Evidence shows that governance arrangements promote coordination, articulation and citizen participation.  A recent paper (in Spanish) that we produced together with Sandra Paulina Leal, looks at the case of the San Francisco River in Bogota-Colombia and produces interesting evidence and lessons about urban governance.  The paper analyzes the governance of the San Francisco River over several decades and argues that ultimately planning and implementing policies that can address in an integrated approach people, environmental and economic challenges are key to promoting effective urban governance.  The paper also shows that none of these processes are automatic, rather they need to be promoted, coordinated, and articulated and require leadership, strategic short and long term planning, as well as awareness about sustainability.

Urban governance is here to stay and as we see the decay of politics at the global and national levels, it offers a hopeful opportunity to renew a type of healthy political activism that addresses policy.  Urban governance is a system that needs to be set up to enforce priorities, and get things done.  It will have to go beyond the cliché of participatory democracy.  Given that the issues at the city and local levels are so close to the people, urban governance naturally promotes a type of politics that is more attuned to conflict than to consensus.  Therefore, urban politics needs to revolve around policy and policy dialogue, less so around electoral and/or ideological considerations.  Urban governance may still have to rely on the use of more traditional network of electoral processes, but the framework within which the urban process operates, will have to be expanded and improved.  Not only more policies, but also better articulation, coordination and governance arrangements.

While there is no blue print or magic formula for improving urban governance, there are a number of basic strategies that may help.  For example, inclusive public spaces; effective transportation systems; public-private partnerships with civil society included; mechanisms and space for the participation of disadvantaged groups in the decision-making processes; cross-sectorial cooperation; creating meaningful opportunities for young people; promoting new technologies to improve services and emergency responses; and build and strengthen resilience to natural disasters, climate change, and crime and violence.  Most importantly, cities will not be able to offer opportunities and prospective, unless they have sustainable financial strategies.

Habitat IV will take place in 2036, and the ambitious agenda of Habitat III will have to be evaluated then.  In the meantime, cities across the world have their jobs cut out, as they may be the only viable hope to re-establish and strengthen democratic governance and be an antidote to the raise of nationalist populism.

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