The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Politics needs to be part of the global urban agenda

National housing and urban development authorities meet in Nairobi this week to set the agenda for UN-HABITAT for the next two years. But what they won't be talking much about is how the conflicting pressures of domestic politics makes a lot of that agenda impossible to fulfil. How can we put domestic politics back on the table?

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Mumbai, Nairobi

Topics: National governance, City politics, The global urban agenda, Development

With national representatives from around the world meeting at UN-HABITAT's Nairobi headquarters for its biannual Governing Council this week, it's a good time to reflect on the global urban agenda.

But what is a global urban agenda? Does the world even have a conscious agenda for its cities? What should it consist of? What should our priorities be? Can we really have a global agenda, given the diversity of cities in the world and the issues they face?

For comparison, the outlines of the international development agenda are fairly clear, even if momentum is sometimes lacking: poverty reduction, economic growth, good governance, equality and empowerment, health and education. In econometric circles, where the search for a single policy 'key' that will unlock all the world's problems has driven regression analysis for decades, the agenda can often boil down to single phrases like 'liberalise trade', 'the good governance agenda', or 'institutions, not geography'. Yet there is always the understanding that these priorities interlock according to robust, albeit contestible, economic and social theories. Prosperity requires economic growth; growth requires market institutions, a powerful state, an enterprising people; and that requires a good education, sound health, and personal freedoms; all of which are prosperities in their own right.

But what is a global urban agenda? Does the world even have a conscious agenda for its cities? What should it consist of? What should our priorities be?

In many respects, there is a comparable urban agenda. Efficient spatial layouts. Reduced energy and resource demands. Sustainable transport. Healthier lifestyles.

But there are several hundred million urban residents for whom these concerns are luxuries, and it is UN-HABITAT's mandate to put these people on the agenda. Their needs were discussed today in a special session reserved amidst the week's scheduled programming of agonising over funding. Land, housing, water and sanitation, transport and energy — the urban poor need equitable access to all of these. Yet is this just a list of tasks, or do the issues interlock in some fundamental way? Like the econometric approach to international development, is there a single issue that unlocks all the others?

Consider housing. Hundreds of millions are inadequately housed for the same reason they are inadequately fed — they are poor and can't afford it. Yet the fact that even the most impoverished households almost universally are able to piece together shack dwellings over time suggests that it is not the cost of building materials or their assembly which is prohibitive, but rather the regulatory barriers to formal housing, and the difficulties in accessing the underlying land.

So perhaps land is the key. In this thinking, housing problems arise because not enough land is made available within urban areas to build adequate housing for everyone wanting to live in them. Land markets may be dysfunctional: for example a small class of elites may own too much land and refuse to sell until prices skyrocket, or titling systems may have collapsed making legal transfer near-impossible. Government masterplans may refuse to allocate sufficient land to housing to maintain reserves for commercial development and infrastructure or in futile attempts to keep people in the countryside. Complex topography as in Rio de Janeiro may make such land impractical or dangerous, inhabited only in desperation. In Mumbai, where several million people are squeezed into a thin peninsula, Rahul Mehrotra has argued that only a regional plan can solve the problem of land availability, a plan where large tracts of the distant mainland are conscripted as new sites for commercial and residential expansion, integrated within a greatly enlarged transport and utility network.

What of water and sanitation, transport and energy? Many cities suffer the colonial legacy of two-track infrastructure development, where modern networks were deliberately withheld from indigenous settlement areas, or built in more rudimentary form. The imbalance is perpetuated today, as utilities are denied the revenue and taxation base to expand networks to full coverage, and made worse by rapid urban growth, and political demands for privatisation. In the end the idea persists that certain areas don't deserve adequate coverage, and rules and policies are created that deny or restrict services to informal areas, shack settlements, poor neighbourhoods, etc., or withhold funds for investment in wealthier districts.

But what do problems like inefficient housing regulations, broken titling systems, constrictive government master plans, weak taxation bases and inequitable service policies all have in common? Politics. Favouritism of one social group over another, bias towards certain kinds of physical development over others, reluctance to impose fiscal constraints on certain classes of activities. These are all decisions made and unmade by domestic politics, and this is the big issue missing from the agenda discussed in Nairobi this week.

... as soon as they go home they will be surrounded once more by the cacophonous and conflictual demands of domestic politics, to which the needs of the urban poor will be subjugated just like any other underprivileged group.

For while all the world's national representatives can come to a conference and agree that land, housing, basic services and infastructure are all high priorities as far as the urban poor are concerned, as soon as they go home they will be surrounded once more by the cacophonous and conflictual demands of domestic politics, to which the needs of the urban poor will be subjugated just like any other underprivileged group. Back in their city halls, why be concerned with the poor when there is real estate to develop, industry to support, foreign investment to attract, local capital to retain, innovation hubs to build, rail and air links to establish, crime to fight and security to maintain?

Of course, as a United Nations body, UN-HABITAT can only advise national governments on administrative objects, not meddle in domestic politics. Yet when domestic politics is a barrier to fulfilling so much of its agenda, it's time to work out how to make it a priority. The role of domestic politics is understood as critical in the international development sphere, it must be seen as a central concern in global urban development as well.

Following the logic of this article, the task for the global urban development community is twofold. It must internalise the lesson that politics interlocks with all its other priorities, and reframe its agenda accordingly. Yet it must also learn to make the case to national governments how satisfying the needs of the urban poor interlocks with all the other demands of domestic politics, so that those governments may internalise their needs to make them a priority on their domestic agendas.


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