Managing urban growth has become one of the most important challenges of the 21st century.(1)
Urbanization offers significant opportunities to reduce poverty and gender inequality, as well as to promote sustainable development. Yet, without effective approaches in preparation for the massive increase in the number of poor people, slums will multiply and living conditions will continue to deteriorate. If cities persist in the uncontrolled expansion of urban perimeters, indiscriminate use of resources and unfettered consumption, without regard to ecological damage, the environmental problems associated with cities will continue to worsen.
How can cities avoid calamity and make the most of their opportunities? Increasingly, it is hoped that improved urban governance will be the answer.
The term “urban governance”, formerly equated with urban management, has come to be understood as both government responsibility and civic engagement.(2)Generally, it refers to the processes by which local urban governments—in partnership with other public agencies and different segments of civil society—respond effectively to local needs in a participatory, transparent and accountable manner.
Good governance will indeed be essential in our urban future; however, its concerns and planning horizons must extend beyond current needs. In many developing nations, present urban problems are only the beginning. As globalization continues, massive future urban growth is both inevitable and necessary, but the way it grows will make all the difference. Cities need a longer-term strategy for expected change.
This Report has repeatedly made the point that effective responses to the urban challenge must also add a spatial dimension to this longer-term outlook. Therefore, integrating social and environmental concerns for urban growth within a broader vision of time and space is critical for sustainability.
Several processes will affect the exercise of urban governance. All accentuate the responsibility of local governments, traditionally the weakest link in the public sector.(3)
First, the increasingly globalized nature of economic relations is shifting some trade and production, and thus economic growth, away from the largest cities. Enterprising local governments have the option to build on their comparative and locational advantages and thus help local firms to attract foreign direct investment to their cities.
Second, national governments are devolving some of their powers and revenue-raising authority to local governments in most developing countries. This opens up new opportunities for local governments to take a more active role in social and economic development.
Third, closer attention to human rights and the rise of civil society, along with movements towards democratization and political pluralism, have also given local-level institutions more responsibility in many countries.(4)This trend toward democratization helps to strengthen urban governance by increasing popular participation and making local administration more accountable.
Finally, these trends towards localization and decentralization become more important because half of all urban demographic growth is occurring in smaller localities. These have the advantage of flexibility in making decisions on critical issues, such as land use, infrastructure and services, and are more amenable to popular participation and political oversight. On the other hand, they tend to be under-resourced and under-financed. They also lack critical information and the technical capability to use it.
The scale of the challenge arising from these converging trends is clear: Much needs to be done in order to turn urbanization’s potential into reality. Doing so calls for a broader vision. Smaller localities particularly need help. These concerns will be the subject of the next section.
What Can We Do?
International organizations, including UNFPA and UN-Habitat, can do at least three things to help national and local governments, as
well as civil society movements, to promote a better future for cities and their residents in the developing world.
First, they can help to bring about necessary changes in policy outlook by influencing planners and policymakers in developing countries to accept urban growth as inevitable and to adopt more proactive and creative approaches. These approaches should build on, rather than discourage, the efforts of poor individuals and groups to gain more secure, healthy and gainful homes and livelihoods in urban centres.
Second, they can help indicate a better way to reduce rates of urban growth, thereby giving policymakers more leeway to tackle urban problems. The major component of this growth in today’s developing countries—natural increase—can best be addressed through poverty reduction, promotion of women’s rights and better reproductive health services.
Third, international organizations can help policymakers and the different segments of civil society make better decisions regarding the urban future by encouraging them to generate and use solid sociodemographic information.