The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Who sets the global urban agenda? The role of sectoral lobbies, local politicians and global institutions

Alan Gilbert doesn't believe there is one, but if one must speak of a global urban agenda, he would point to local private sector lobbies as the common force driving similar agendas in cities around the world. He discusses the role of local politics and the global urban institutions in reshaping the agenda for the world's urban citizens.

Cities: Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, Bogotá, Medellin

Topics: Roads and traffic, Transport, Private sector governance, City politics, Place promotion, The global urban agenda

The Medellin Metro: very expensive and pushed hard by local politicians and overseas railway builders. Photo: laloking97 (Flickr)
TGI Friday's in Santiago, Chile: fast food forms part of the international global menu. Photo: Alan Gilbert
The Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum designed by Oscar Niemeyer: promoting tourism is an important global sectoral agenda. Photo: Alan Gilbert
Informal work in Bogota: one sector that is on no-one's agenda. Photo: Alan Gilbert
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I am not sure there is any such thing as a global urban agenda nor indeed that one can exist. As urban areas now contain around 3.5 billion people, a global urban agenda would be just too wide to be really meaningful.

Of course, there are important sectoral urban agendas, most of which are led by global or national companies and powerful local lobbies. These agendas are often supported by national and local governments anxious to increase exports and the pace of economic growth. I think these lobbies are far more influential than United Nations institutions or even the World Bank. Indeed I don't think that the UN or the World Bank actually have much influence, certainly not in the big countries of the world.

Some examples of these sectoral agendas are: home ownership an real estate development, pushed by local property and construction lobbies; transport infrastructure provision, such as the building of roads and metros pushed by the big construction companies; expansion of private car ownership, pushed by the automobile lobby and by ministers of economic development who expect a growing vehicle industryto increase employment; and to some extent the privatisation of service delivery, pushed by the big global water companies among others.

Most of these lobbies are worrying in terms of their impact on sustainability both of urban areas and of the planet. Do we need more cars given their capacity to pollute, kill and maim and their tendency to encourage urban sprawl?

Most of these lobbies are worrying in terms of their impact on sustainability both of urban areas and of the planet. Do we need more cars given their capacity to pollute, kill and maim and their tendency to encourage urban sprawl?

What is omitted from these sectoral urban agendas? Urban poverty and inequality, employment, the old, and to a considerable extent the physical environment. These are neglected because there is no powerful lobby pushing these issues, perhaps because they do not create profit for big companies.

What is the role of politicians? Quite simply, to get re-elected, to upset as few people as possible, not to rock the boat, but also to improve the international ranking of their city.

This interpretation means that most try very hard not to upset the elite. Localy they rely upon the corporate sector to help improve their city's image. They do not want to upset car drivers even though they are a minority in most poor cities, and even less taxi and bus drivers who may paralyse the city through strikes. Politicians may appeal to the poor when they need their vote but that does not mean that they do much in practice to help them. Indeed, politicians' populist gestures may lead to medium term problems, such as by keeping water or bus prices too low, by encouraging land invasions, or by over-spending on national or local budgets.

How do we change these local urban agendas? Electorates do need to vote for decent presidents, prime ministers, mayors, etc., although recent evidence suggests that they often fail to do so. The Tea Party and recent elections in the UK and Spain suggest that electorates are confused about their best interests. It is interesting, but puzzling, that most big cities around the globe are run by a party opposed to that running the country. There is potential for change through well directed protests, like UK Uncut, which promotes alternatives to government spending cuts, and the demonstrations of cycling groups such as Critical Mass. And education should produce a more politically aware and sensitive electorate, though alas there is little sign of this happening.

What is the role of the UN and World Bank? Too often it is simply to pursue the interests of their main 'shareholders', the OECD countries, though it is also to convey best practice, which is ignored by most governments unless it happens to be convenient. The BRIC countries basically ignore the Bank's teachings; the Bank needs the BRICs more than they need it. UN and World Bank public messages are normally too diffuse; they try to convey oo many messages, their lending programmes are more focused but are possibly biased towards their shareholders' interests.

The recent experiences of China and India in developing their cities is truly worrying; they have learned little or nothing from the mistakes made in Latin America or indeed in the United States. Most countries want to learn from the best practice of the United States; I believe there is more to learn from US bad practice!

In sum, the international institutions now produce too many publications; they are to dominated by engineers and economists; they are too prone to jump on the same bandwagons (e.g. climate warming, microcredit, gender, property titling, privatisation) and then forget them a little while later. They wield little power in most large countries, and they now need reforming. They also need to be given more financial clout to do a useful job, for example the right to impose taxes on the international financial system, such as the 'Tobin tax' proposed to be levied on currency transactions.


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