National Systems of Cities and National Policies | MIPIM-World Blog

Cites and national development.

This month’s blog posts will focus on the key trends in how national governments are coming to terms with urban change in the context of the present challenges facing the world. These days, cities and metropolitan areas are widely regarded as being essential for national success. They are the hubs of population settlement, employment, & business, the centres of trade and innovation, the centres of infrastructure and logistics platforms, and the main clusters of cultural production and national identity. Cities also house the majority of the knowledge creation capability of nations, their centres of government and administration, diplomatic functions and they are, of course, decision taking, media, and communication centres.

Shift from Cities to Problems to cities as Assets.

As globalisation and climate change have become more significant drivers of change, National policies towards cities have begun to change over the past 20 years. But those who herald the end of the Nation State are very much wide of the mark. National Governments continue to exercise a major role in how cities are managed and resourced. In federal countries, state and provincial level governments are the key players in urban and regional policies. Overall, whilst there have been several important reforms in the governance of some major cities, the vast majority of cities are still dependent upon the policies and resources of higher tiers of government for their operational frameworks. This is even more true at the metropolitan level where improvements in metropolitan governance have been observed, but they do not equate to the reversal of the governance hierarchies in any countries. So whilst it is increasingly possible to view the new global economic geography as a network of trading cities akin to the historical networks such as the Hanseatic League, there are very few cities that today have a form of governance that equates to a ‘city state’. What we see is a system of trade that is organised though cities, but supervised by nation states. Cites such Singapore, Hong Kong, Hamburg, New York, Zurich, where levels of self-government are high, are the exception rather than the rule.

City Governance systems.

This means that it is important to view City governance as system of different activities that includes the city government itself, but also the policies and actions of higher tiers of government and their intended, or unintended, consequences upon the city.  For many years, cities have argued that it is not just more power that is needed, but that national and state governments should modify polices that unintentionally undermine cities and foster sprawl and suburbanisation, or encourage only short term approaches to investment, or fail to apply integrated solutions to urban problems. In addition to National and State level governments many countries also now have para-statal and privatized organisations that are responsible for key elements of urban services and infrastructure. Whether any city can become a ‘smart city’ will depend substantially on its ability to achieve systems integration and inter-operability over a set of services which each have rather different ownership and governance arrangements.

National Urban and Regional Policies.

Not all National Governments have active urban policies, and not all governments have the same policies for all cities. Countries appears to move in and out if phases of having spatial policies, as our case studies will show. One interesting development has been the general shift from urban policies in the 1970s and 1980s which focused on tackling poverty and deprivation to a broader set of policies that are about encouraging development of various kinds.

At the same time, around the world National Regional policies and the tools used for effective regional development are evolving and changing considerably. Globalisation places new stresses on how national and sub-national economies perform, and is influencing the ways that national regional development policies are designed and executed. These are summarised in the table below.

*Adapted from OECD


New Metropolitan and Regional Policies.

The implication is that regional development systems in most countries are at some point on a continuum between ‘old style’ regional policies and ‘new style’ metropolitan and regional development approaches. Those countries that can most quickly adapt and modernise their approaches are likely to be more successful in pursuing metropolitan and regional development objectives, other things being equal.

Therefore many countries are working hard to increase the effectiveness of their regional development systems by building new tools and governance approaches. Following the economic crisis a major new focus is on how to use land assets, tax incentives, and financial engineering to leverage external investment. There is substantial investment capital seeking opportunities and there are new dynamics in investment markets for infrastructure, real estate, and utilities. There are many different approaches that can be taken by national and local governments here, and there are different philosophies concerning what is the eventual goal.

National Systems of Cities.

An important insight about National Urban and Regional Policies has come from the World Bank’s recent work on urbanisation and it’s World Development Report in 2009. The insight is that the dynamic evolution of cities and rural to urban migration in the developing world makes it important to focus policy interventions on the whole urbanisation process rather than on individual cites. The Bank develops the idea of a ‘system of cities’ in each country, where the shifts and relationships between the cities, their comparative and complementary expertise, and their evolution viz a viz both each other and the rural areas of the country, should be the focus of national policies. They develop the argument that national policies are needed to guide and support spatial development and to ensure that the urbanisation process is actively managed in both the areas where it occurs and in those areas that it impacts. We will return to this theme in our final review at the end of the month. In the mean time we will begin our review of national urban policies.

Top image credit: Photobank gallery

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