The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


The City Effect: rapid urbanisation raises questions about how much urban government is enough

The idea of empowering city governments is a thrown around a lot these days in urbanite circles. But where should the line between local and higher levels of government begin and end? Alia Dharssi reports on the debate.

Cities: New York-Newark, London

Topics: National governance, Regional governance, City politics, Sustainability, Environmental impacts, Climate change, The global urban agenda

A bird's eye view of New York City, August 19, 2011. Photo: Demond Henderson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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As the world figures out how to handle climate change and extreme poverty, among other contemporary challenges, leading thinkers at the LSE Urban Age Conference in Delhi called for granting more decision-making power and resources to cities at the end of last year. Using case studies from all over the world, they argued that empowering local governments – which involves some amalgamation of granting them more money and power, bringing entire metropolitan regions under the control of a single governing body and giving citizens the chance to hold these governments accountable through elections and other means – improves the lives of city dwellers by giving them a say over urban planning. Proponents of stronger city governments contend that locals will push for policies that are good for the environment and good for democracy, including accessible public transport and local solutions to tackle flooding, extreme weather and other consequences of climate change.

But the case studies at LSE Urban Age also pointed to the limitations of local control. At the crux of the debate is how much say urban governments, as opposed to state and national ones should have over what happens in cities. Policy makers are concerned about the extent to which decisions made in a particular city reverberate everywhere else, whether it’s through their impact on the national economy, the extraction of resources in the wilderness or the lives of people in other countries.

Undemocratic Indian cities

Urban local government has been regarded as less important than other levels of government since colonial times, said KC Sivaramakrishnan, chair of the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. He explained that this is reflected in the political set up of Indian democracy: even as cities drive India’s economic growth and more than one-third of Indians live in urban areas, only 92 out of 542 seats in the Indian Parliament are from urban areas.

 “When we talk about voice for urban India, that voice is still muted, scattered, disorganized and does not have consistent political backing,” said Sivaramakrishnan.

Urban citizens have little say over the management of India’s cities. “Parastatals” managed by state governments typically have authority over basic services, including water, electricity and public transport. Few Indian cities have mayors and, when they do, they might not be elected or have little tangible power. While the 74th amendment to the Indian constitution calls for urban self-governance, loopholes have enabled state governments to hold off on devolving more power to cities, Sivaramakrishnan explained.

Meanwhile, investments in urban infrastructure often don’t align with the needs of the population, said Madhav Pai, director of EMBARQ India, a think tank that works on urban mobility issues. Over the last 15 years, organizations run by the state of Maharashtra have invested more than $3.5 billion (USD) in roads, freeways and flyovers in Mumbai without making comparable investments in public transit, Pai explained. Meanwhile, only about 7% of the population uses cars.

Fragmented planning in New York city

In contrast to many Indian cities, New York City has accessible and widespread urban transport with more people coming on board each year. Twice as many people come through New York’s Pennsylvania Station as did in the early 1970s and subway ridership is at an all-time high. But the agencies responsible for providing transport in the New York metropolitan area are not making effective long-term decisions, explained Thomas Wright, executive director of the Regional Plan Association, a civic organization that has developed long-range plans for greater New York.

The problem has to do with fragmented governance. “We have about 22 million people living in one region with several thousand different units of government deciding land use, taxing allocation and other things,” said Wright.

It also has to do with a lack of long-term leadership. “The institutions that are supposed to be thinking long term increasingly have CEOs with short-term tenures.(…) These are the right individuals often running these institutions, but when they’re in place for an average of about two years, it’s very hard to think about how they’re going to make long-term decisions,” explained Wright.

Billions have been wasted because of a lack of collaboration between the Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), both of which are subsidiaries of the Metropolitan Transport Authority, the body responsible for transportation in much of the region. LIRR spent decades trying to obtain a connection in the Grand Central Terminal, which is owned by Metro-North, but gave up because Metro-North wouldn’t give it any track or platform space, said Wright.

“Instead, they [LIRR] are building an enormous sub-basement at the tune of about $12 billion (USD) underneath Grand Central just because of the institutional failure of those two agencies that report to the same boss to work together.”

Empowered mayors in London

In contrast to the fragmentation in New York, the mayor of London is the Chairman of Transport for London and controls decision-making related to transport in the city. Ricky Burdett, director of LSE Cities and Urban Age, argued that city planning in London has improved significantly since 2000, when the elected position of the mayor of London was created and vested with the power to influence long-term urban planning across the city.

Burdett continued that the planning strategies pursued by Ken Livingstone, mayor from 2000 to 2008, and Boris Johnson, mayor since 2008, are directly shaping how London develops. Both made decisions to maintain London’s green belt, which contains the city’s growth, and to facilitate the development of spare land with a focus on increasing density, increasing mixed land use and promoting poor areas of the city that have good connections to public transport.

In the case of transport, a new line was added to connect the poorer East to the centre of the city and a circular system was built to improve ease of access between communities scattered around the centre.  In addition, Cross Rail, a high speed line cutting across London, is scheduled to open in 2018.

This massive investment in transport infrastructure – to the tune of billions of pounds from the central government –would not have been possible without a directly elected Mayor to advocate for interests of Londoners, argued Burdett.

“There is a very important social issue that lies behind the investment in infrastructure,” he said. An example of the impact of such investments can be found in Canary Wharf, where better transport connections with other parts of the city helped draw more people to apartments in the area. Once a “bad example of modern town planning” only zoned for offices, Canary Wharf, Burdett argued, is now more than 80% housing of which 40% is social housing.

The complications of local governments

The case studies above highlight the value of empowering local governments, but cities don’t exist in a vacuum. At the end of the day, state and national governments decide how much their municipal counterparts can do. Aside from a reluctance to give up resources, higher levels of government have many compelling reasons not to hand over control.  

In the case of the UK, GU writer Zoe Green reported last year on the construction of inter-city high speed railroads and other steps the British government is taking to decrease economic inequalities between London, which is thriving, and the rest, which aren’t doing so well. These are the sorts of decisions that only higher levels of government can take, but they have a critical impact on urban quality of life.

There is also the issue of where to draw the boundaries. For example, the New York metropolitan area extends for hundreds of miles beyond New York itself. It is comprised of several smaller cities in the surrounding states. Wright made a good case for the need for more unified planning and implementation of transportation policies across the region, but to what extent does that argument extend to water, electricity provision, road works, taxes and other areas over which municipalities have responsibility?

In addition to raising complex questions, growing cities have rising appetites for crops, energy, water and other resources, all of which intensifies their impact on rural places. Neil Brenner, director of the Urban Theory Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, argued that we must focus on the process of urbanisation, rather than simply focusing on cities themselves, in order to draw attention to the ways in which remote areas are operationalised for growing cities.

Through their connections to energy and resource supply chains, their pull on migrants and their large environmental footprints, cities are connected to major geopolitical issues, Brenner said. And several others at LSE Urban Age echoed his views.

“Local autonomy is not possible. […] land use, transportation, education, the environment, housing, poverty – you name it –every issue is a local issue, a state issue and a national issue. You cannot divide issues,” said Gerald Frug, professor of law at Harvard University.

“Yet, local democracy is a vital form of human freedom. […] In a city, it’s possible for ordinary people to participate in decision making that they cannot participate at a higher level,” Frug added.  “[…] Both those arguments I just made are correct and they conflict with each other. The question is what are we going to do about it?”

Global Urbanist readers, we now put that question to you. What is the way forward? Have you encountered any places that have struck an effective balance between local and national control? 


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