The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Seeking a global urban agenda: The Global Urbanist Debates

The Global Urbanist Debates: Setting the Global Urban Agenda was held in London last week. Who sets the global urban agenda? What are the world's urban priorities? What should they be? Three international experts and a roomful of readers battled out these questions and more.

Kerwin Datu

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Tokyo, London

Topics: Property, rights and evictions, Private sector governance, City politics, Property and real estate, Poverty and inequality, The global urban agenda, Development

Last Monday in London, The Global Urbanist invited three speakers as well as a roomful of urbanists to discuss the topic of the global urban agenda. It was the first in what we hope will become a series of events in which professional members of the global urban development community discuss issues of fundamental importance to all urban areas.

Speaking were three intellectual leaders in their respective sectors: Professor Alan Gilbert, Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College London, an expert on urbanisation and poverty in Latin America and South Africa; Dr. Yusaf Samiullah OBE, former Deputy Director and Head of Profession (Infrastructure) at the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DfID) and now operating independently through Y&D International Consulting; and Geoffrey Payne, Director of Geoffrey Payne & Associates, consultants renowned in the fields of housing, land rights, and urban policy. The evening was supported by the development NGO Article 25 and the architectural office Pringle Brandon.

How could the Chinese be so daft as to get rid of all those lovely bicycles in order to have traffic congestion, to pollute their air? It's a lobby ...

We asked them a handful of simple questions about the management of cities. Who sets the global urban agenda? What is it? What about it should change? Their responses were each unexpected in some way, precisely targeting the structure of urban politics common to most cities and the framework of international cooperation that intervenes within them.

Who sets the global urban agenda? What is it?

Gilbert argued that with urban areas accounting for 3.5 billion people, the idea of a coherent global urban agenda is about as nebulous as a global agenda per se. There cannot be one agenda because, for example, "London's needs are very different to Addis Ababa's".

Samiullah disagreed on this point, suggesting that "the human condition is common to all of us. We all want to see our children outlive us; we want them to get a reasonable education and employment, we want a roof over our heads in our old age, we want to be free from persecution and threats," and that these common threads run throughout the urban agenda. Samiullah pointed to 19th century Tokyo, a landscape with rail lines, commercial streets, and rickshaws, just like 21st century London, which now has bicycle rickshaws peddling (!) along Oxford Street. "There's a basic framework that exists from the 19th through to the 21st century."

On the specifics of the agenda, Gilbert proposed that many cities are doing similar things, not because of a common agenda, but because powerful lobbies operate in each sector pushing for the same programmes. "Why are so many governments around the world pushing for home ownership? It's because the real estate lobby prefers home ownership to rental housing. It's more profitable, it's easier to make money out of, because you make money out of the land and the building, and often the financing as well."

Gilbert continued, "big cities are supposed to have underground railways. Why? Because the French and Spanish companies that have experience in building underground railways are pushing very hard for these things to be done. 'Every city with more than three million people has an underground these days, what sort of city are you that hasn't?' they argue."

Similar sector-based lobbies push for the privatisation of water infrastructure, and for the expansion of a city's private car fleet. "How could the Chinese be so daft as to get rid of all those lovely bicycles in order to have traffic congestion, to pollute their air? It's a lobby there as well."

What gets left out, according to Gilbert, are policies addressing urban poverty and inequality, policies for unemployment, for the very old and the very young, and for the physical environment.

Payne agreed when it comes to urban poverty: "It seems that in many countries, the elites are either in denial, or they're anti poor. A permanent secretary once said to me, 'I've been listening very patiently, but if we help improve living conditions for the urban poor, we'll only attract more of them.'" Payne had to explain that their policies had adopted exactly that attitude for the past thirty years and it hadn't stopped them coming, so perhaps they should embrace the inevitable and help the poor.

Payne agreed when it comes to urban poverty: "It seems that in many countries, the elites are either in denial, or they're anti poor."

"We're looking at a situation where the established urban populations have got it nicely sorted for themselves, and of course want servants and the facilities and services that the poor provide, but don't actually want the poor that provide them. This forces the poor into the very situations that the elites are concerned about. We're forcing the poor into situations by neglect or unsympathetic, inappropriate policies, and then they become the scapegoats or the victims."

What is the role of the international institutions?

Gilbert and Payne were both more sympathetic to the World Bank than a lot of urbanists can be. Gilbert believed that "they do try, and I think genuinely, to convey best practice, but most of it is ignored by governments unless it happens to be locally conveniently. Most important however, the big countries of the world where it is the most important to follow the better teachings of the World Bank, ignore it. China, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, India, basically ignore the Bank and increasingly do not borrow from it, because it no longer gives better deals than the commercial banks, and even worse, makes a fuss that governments do certain things [policy-wise]. Most of the bigger countries have realised that the World Bank needs them more than they need the World Bank."

Payne had much to say about donors such as DfID. Speaking out of sadness rather than anger, he said that "DfID is suffering from institutional Alzheimers - it's even forgotten the good things it used to do." It has gone away from funding lots of small research projects, preferring to fund massive research projects involving large consortia of research teams for three to five years. "What is going to come out of a three million pound research project compared to ten projects of £300,000 or a hundred projects of £30,000?"

Payne argued that "donors have relied far too much on simplistic solutions to complex problems." He discussed the example of land titling, much promoted by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, in which giving poor families formal title to the land they live in "is supposed to enliven their dead capital." Payne declared that "we have not found any significant evidence that it gives any significant access to credit. For the very simple reason that for any financial institution with integrity, the first question is, 'can you pay the loan back?' Only if it can answer that question does the question of collateral come into it."

Payne "worries about how the donor community defines value for money." Samiullah agrees, "it's going to be ever so hard to get the money to deal with urban areas, because the impacts are too hard to measure."

Samiullah advised that one of the best things the international sector can do, especially in the face of the lobbies Gilbert described, is to "help countries negotiate better deals with those who have the money." He noted Chinese investments in Africa, where countries had not simply ignored the World Bank but had struck deals that suited them better. He worried that some countries weren't well enough advised to do a good deal, and that this may be what undermines the developmental potential of those projects.

This can be at the community or individual level as well. NGOs working at the grassroots can help broker better deals for individuals, for example in infrastructure projects. "It is generally politicians who are unwilling to charge for basic services, rather than people who are unwilling to pay, in my experience. Actually they're already paying, sometimes 3, 4, 5, 6 times more than they should do, to some intermediary providing water in unsanitary containers." This is one place where the international sector can step in and help structure better deals to finance service delivery.

On the intellectual side of the institutions, Payne hoped that "UN-HABITAT will move away from merely justifying their existence with report after report." And Gilbert suggested that "for every best practice published, there should be a worst practice as well. What did they do, why was it such a disaster, and please don't try to repeat it!"

The role of politics

In the end urban policy is a question of politics. Gilbert can see little change happening other than through the steady improvement of democratic processes. "It helps if you vote for decent prime ministers, mayors, etc.; there's some hope that well-directed protests will influence people; and I hope that education has a benefit, but I suspect that once my students get into the real world they change their thinking to promote their own careers, rather than what I hope they really believe in," he chuckles.

Payne argued that "because 'urban' is political, because land is political, and because urban land is particularly political, people are wary of working in the urban sector." He advises policymakers and practitioners to "by all means, be careful, but be risk aware, not risk averse."

He proposes a "political economy approach", in which one identifies which groups will benefit from any proposed change, which groups would be inert or resistant, and to structure projects to address the legitimate concerns that resistant groups will have." The international community needs to "encourage the professions to work together, and encourage local authorities to learn from each other. The ones that are doing well need to mentor the others."

is Editor-in-chief of The Global Urbanist and chaired the debate. This article is his own personal reflection on the event.

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