Habitat III and metropolitan governance: Time to act

Even as the world is becoming increasingly urban, it’s also becoming increasingly metropolitan. The New Urban Agenda is a timely opportunity to consolidate guidance on what we’ve learned so far.

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Some local challenges need to be addressed at a metropolitan scale. While urban areas constantly change — expanding spatially, converging with satellite towns, etc. — jurisdictional boundaries of local governments rarely do.

Improved transport allows for daily commuting over longer distances, and improved communication technologies also help advance regional economic integration. Yet the governance of larger cities, particularly in developing countries, tends to be very fragmented. Numerous local governments have been created over time. This mismatch of economic integration and political fragmentation creates a need for collaboration among local governments.

The Area Metropolitana de Guatemala (AMG), for instance, is composed of three large municipalities, each with more than 1 million population, and 14 smaller municipalities. It is an area with intense daily commuting to and from Guatemala City. In Egypt, the City of Cairo is an integrated built-up area that is divided into three governorates plus a few housing areas managed by the national government. And the metropolitan area of Accra in Ghana is a contiguous built-up of the 16 local governments in the Accra Region, plus a few local jurisdictions in the neighbouring regions.

[See: All together now: The rising metropolitan sensibility]

An increasing number of government functions — though not all — benefit from being addressed at a larger, metropolitan scale. There are several characteristics of these types of services. Perhaps first and foremost, they benefit from economies of scale. This includes, for instance, solid-waste disposal and other utility services. They may address externalities or spillovers — for instance, environmental protection.

Some functions also tend to require harmonization among local jurisdictions, as with crime-prevention policies. And there are services that have other area-wide benefits, such as economic development, public transport and tourism promotion.

Meanwhile, there are also services that tend to be best carried out by each local government. These include, for example, local roads, street lighting, solid-waste collection, firefighting, parks, libraries, local markets and more.

Effective teamwork

While many cities have well-established arrangements for the provision of metropolitan services, these tend to be mostly in OECD countries. But properly functioning metro areas are particularly important in developing countries, where urban growth is rapid and institutional structures often weak.

So, why is this not happening more? “What’s in it for us?” is a not uncommon (but understandable) reaction to suggestions for joint actions between local governments. The local governments in a metropolitan area are often of different size and capacity, with different degrees of “parochialism”.

“The Habitat III process should encourage neighbouring local governments to explore and capture the benefits of joint action, where they exist. Importantly, sufficient legal framework for doing so does exist in most countries.”

These local governments may have divergent interests and political agendas. Political inhibitors to greater collaboration may be reluctance on the part of local officials to give up their direct control or influence over matters related to their constituency — their voters. Indeed, one can see similar reluctance at the level of political parties.

[See: Charting the metropolitan century]

Progress in such matters does not come without effort. In each case, a unique argument needs to be made for collaboration.

In one case, the rationale may be financial, pointing to greater cost savings. In another, a key motivation could come from concerns around equity — for example, if one jurisdiction is a victim of pollution caused by another jurisdiction. Or action could be triggered by pressure from the local civil society and private sector for certain actions at the metropolitan scale.

Yet in every such example, achieving successful collaboration among local governments has similarities with effective teamwork. It requires a common objective, a clear understanding of the benefits of the cooperation. It also requires mutual trust, which is earned over time. And it requires recognition that differing views constitute a strength rather than a weakness to arrive at the most effective solution — meaning one with which all parties can live.

Menu of options

What exactly is a metropolitan area? For the purposes of this article, it’s defined as a single economy and labour market, a community with common interests. Demarcation of such an area is usually done through the determination of one of three factors: a contiguous built-up area; an area based on distance from the city centre (by distance or travelling time); or an area based on functional relations (daily commuting, or business linkages).

[See: Metropolitan regions the ‘new normal’, study suggests]

“While many cities have well-established arrangements for the provision of metropolitan services, these tend to be mostly in OECD countries. But properly functioning metro areas are particularly important in developing countries, where urban growth is rapid and institutional structures often weak.”

So what arrangement is needed for a metropolitan area? There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

An inter-municipal forum: The minimum approach is to have a forum in which local governments and other stakeholders can discuss and explore the potential for coordinated or joint actions — a light inter-municipal cooperation arrangement.

Examples go by various names. In the United States, such a body is called a metropolitan planning organization or metropolitan council of governments; in Brazil, it’s simply a consortium, or mancomunidad in Central America; and in Africa, these entities are sometimes known as joint development planning boards.

More ambitious arrangements for addressing metropolitan needs, applied in cities around the world, can be classified as follows.

Metropolitan authorities: These include the “special purpose districts” used in the United States and Canada, and the communauté urbaine (“urban communities”) or syndicats inter-communaux (“syndicates”) in France. They may be single-sector authorities (e. g. a transport or a water authority) or multi-sector ones (e. g. Metro Vancouver).

[See: The ‘Grand Paris’ era begins]

A separate metropolitan-level government: This could be set up for certain functions, as in the Metropolitan District of Quito or the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Or it could be created as a “second tier” local government covering the metropolitan area, examples of which can be seen in Budapest or in Chinese municipalities.

A consolidated local government: Such a body is formed through the amalgamation of local governments or the annexation of adjacent areas. Its jurisdictional area essentially coincides with its metropolitan (functional economic) area. Examples of such entities can be found in the eight metropolitan municipalities in South Africa. Likewise, Istanbul in 2014 tripled its size by adding areas that previously had been governed by the national government.

A regional or state government managing some services: This offers yet another solution, and can be seen in action in the public transport services under management by the states in Australia.

[See: In the Montréal area, 82 municipalities begin to think and act as one]

Inter-municipal forums tend to be low-risk arrangements for local governments, where decisions often need to be ratified by each local council; therefore, these are quite common. Metropolitan authorities are particularly common for public transport, water and sanitation, based on obvious coordination needs or significant economies of scale.

In most countries, forums and authorities can be established by local governments — a bottom-up process. On the other hand, creating a metropolitan-level government or a consolidated local government tends to be very politically contentious, and thus tends to require engagement and approval by the national government (or in federal states, at least a regional government) — thus, a top-down process. These latter arrangements are therefore much less common.

New Metropolitan Agenda

Given the growing discussion around metropolitan governance, it is notable that the issues has received some significant attention in the preparations for Habitat III, the U. N.’s periodic urbanization conference that will take place this fall in Quito.

In the run-up to the summit, the Habitat III process hosted a major meeting on metropolitan areas in October in Montréal. There, stakeholders offered input to the drafting of the New Urban Agenda, the urbanization strategy that will come out of the Quito conference. The first draft of the agenda was released on 6 May.

[See: In Montréal, Habitat III forum hails rise of ‘cities planning’]

What can Habitat III do in this context? Part of the New Urban Agenda known as the Quito Implementation Plan is to be “a key tool for national, subnational, and local governments to achieve sustainable urban development,” the draft document states. It also mentions the need to strengthen linkages between urban and rural areas, as well as the capacity to implement effective metropolitan governance and metropolitan plans.

But Habitat III could go much further than this, to seize at least three additional opportunities in Quito. First, the New Urban Agenda should highlight the need for and the potential benefits of metropolitan-scale governance arrangements in larger urban areas composed of several local governments. In other words, it needs to urge the delegates to implement specific mechanisms for metropolitan governance — tailored to local and national contexts — in order to capture economies of agglomeration.

The Habitat III process should also encourage neighbouring local governments to explore and capture the benefits of joint action, where they exist. Importantly, sufficient legal framework for doing so does exist in most countries.

[See: Montréal Declaration: Metropolitan areas key to sustainable urbanization]

Third, the agenda will need to remind civil society and the private sector of the importance of their local government seizing opportunities for joint actions with neighbouring jurisdictions, as appropriate. Particular opportunity exists around, for instance, land-use planning, area branding and other economic development initiatives.

With continued urbanization around the world and settlements becoming more interdependent, metropolitan areas are becoming the “new normal”. Tailored to each case, arrangements need to exist for cooperation among local governments and for effective provision of some local functions at the metropolitan scale.

As long as legal or regulatory provisions allow local governments to implement joint initiatives and projects to carry out their mandates in the most cost-effective and responsive way for their constituents, it is up to local officials and other stakeholders to look beyond their jurisdictional area alone to harness economies of agglomeration — without compromising the ability of residents to access their local government and to hold them accountable.

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Mats Andersson

Mats Andersson is a consultant on issues of metropolitan management, specializing in urban, metropolitan and regional development. He was an urban management and municipal finance specialist at the World Bank from 1994 to 2007, and the institution’s country coordinator in China during 2000 to 2003. Mats is a Swedish national and resides in San Francisco.