All together now: The rising metropolitan sensibility

On the back of the Habitat III process, recent months have seen a strengthening in global acknowledgement of the critical coming role of metropolitan areas.

Guadalajara, in Jalisco state, is Mexico's second-largest region. (Jesus Cervantes/Shutterstock)

MONTRÉAL AND GUADALAJARA — Expansive ideas of collaboration throughout metropolitan areas appear to be spreading in the run-up to Habitat III, next year’s 20-year summit on urbanization. Two major conferences in late 2015 — one in Canada, the other in Latin America — provided evidence of mounting interest and focus on this phenomenon.

Metro regions differ vastly in their characteristics — national, ethnic, economic, physical. But increasingly they’re being seen as the true cities of our time, fusions of centre cities and suburbs that are destined to encompass more than half of the world’s population and to keep climbing through this century.

[See: Charting the metropolitan century]

Plus, say advocates of this new metro focus, it’s difficult to name substantive issues in which the concerns of centre cities and suburbs aren’t converging — from air quality and carbon counts to labour force and the economy, from food supply to public safety to defence against terrorism. And increasingly, international city groups are taking note.

A prime example is a sophisticated analysis tool recently developed by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) to identify the actual, not simply political, characteristics of 275 functional metropolitan regions in the 29 countries of its membership. Similar indexes are not available worldwide, though the OECD does offer special reports on urbanization in China and South Africa.

Elected leaders are starting to get the message regarding the importance of metropolitan regions, both for local development and their own positioning in the global economy. Point of evidence: In recent months, two North American metropolises — Montréal, Canada, and Guadalajara, Mexico — used the Habitat III planning process to stage major regional conferences associated with the creation of a new Network of the Metropolitan Areas of the Americas. Habitat III will take place in October in Quito, Ecuador.

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

The network had earlier roots. At a 2013 meeting in Santiago de Cali, Colombia, formal steps to create the network were taken by Metropolitan Montréal and Colombia’s Aburrá Valley (Medellín), together with representatives of the metro regions of Guadalajara, São Paulo and San Salvador.

But the Montréal conference, held 5-6 October, marked a major step forward. Several hundred people attended, producing a Montréal Declaration on Metropolitan Areas designed to represent a significant contribution to Habitat III preparations. UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos, as Citiscope reported, attended the conference and stressed the need for U. N. member states to pass laws that would provide new flexibility to metropolitan regions to shape effective governance in their regions.

[See: Habitat III e-discussion opens on metropolitan areas]

Six weeks later, the International Forum on Metropolitan Governance Innovation took place in Guadalajara on 23-24 November. That event not only looked forward to Quito but also focused on unifying — in spirit if not in law — the disparate and sometimes contentious communities of Guadalajara city and its surrounding communities.

As blessed by the Mexican Federal Ministry of Urban Development, Guadalajara’s mayor and the governor of the surrounding state of Jalisco, the conference also focused on ways to improve haphazard and environmentally harmful forms of scattered land use and weak metropolitan management that increasingly impact Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Present at both Guadalajara and Montréal was a significant number of city innovators and urban experts from outside the region, focused both on Habitat III preparations and on varied strategies to make metropolitan regions function more efficiently and responsively. Glaringly absent, however, were representatives of specific cities or metro areas in the United States, the massive country lying between Canada and Mexico — a reflection of U. S. cities’ spotty and often non-existent interest in urban development outside their borders.

Sounding alarms

“In human nature,” Montréal Mayor Denis Coderre told the conference in his city, “there’s a reality check called power.” This is a scenario now playing out as city regions globally expand in both population and needs — and insist that they’re key to sustainable urbanization and that, in turn, they require expanded authority and recognition by their nation states.

“It’s difficult to name substantive issues in which the concerns of centre cities and suburbs aren’t converging.”

But there are obstacles in this bottom-up process, as well. Many local communities don’t yet grasp the benefits of metropolitan cohesion. There’s the challenge, U. S. urban specialist Janice Perlman noted in the Montréal discussions, “to motivate local government authorities to go beyond ‘my place, my power’” and work with the metropolitan region of which they’re a part.

And there’s scant time to wait for metro-wide solutions, Braulio F. De Souza Dias, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, told the conference. “We face more likelihood of extreme weather events, lack of access to food, increasing challenges,” he said, referring to factors related to the loss of 90 percent of the globe’s wetlands, more than half of its forests, the extinction of marine species and more.

“The infrastructure of metropolitan areas is inadequate to the new realities,” he continued, suggesting this makes cities increasingly vulnerable to collapse of services, even regarding food and water.

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

Such a sombre outlook, and the compelling need for action, was underscored by Victor Vergara, the World Bank’s lead urban specialist. “In 40 years, without solutions, there will be no Earth” as we know it today, Vergara warned. Some cities and regions, he noted, are still unaware even of their total population or actual boundaries. Theory says central governments should care for the poor and deal with income inequality, but “now that’s falling to metro areas and cities,” Vergara said.

There are glimmers of hope, Vergara suggested. For instance, more cities in the Global South are beginning to learn from each other — as example, he cited Mumbai learning from Rio’s strategy on dealing with weather emergencies. But there’s also a global need, Vergara continued, to use data and compelling analysis “to build capacity from the street level up to the metropolitan” in order to prepare for emergencies and to manage other processes.

The bigger issue, De Souza Dias noted, “is not data but how to use it.” World cities are faced by “some frightening flooding and water-supply issues,” he said. The challenge is “to get metros to think outside the box, incorporating new solutions into public policy.”

Yet the capacity to think more creatively already exists, emphasized Perlman, the U. S. urban specialist. “Dense and diverse populations”, she said, can translate into “greater ability to innovate, apply collective intelligence” — working, for example, through social media, schools and places of worship to sharpen preparedness for attacks or other perils.

The Montréal Declaration

The Montréal Declaration on Metropolitan Areas, intended as a formal input to the Habitat III process, was drafted through public sessions with multiple stakeholders — elected officials, international organizations, civil society groups.

The document underscores predictions that the world’s future will be overwhelmingly urban — 70 percent of the globe’s population in cities and their immediate metropolitan regions by 2050, 85 percent by 2100. And the metros, it asserts, are the central hubs of this century’s globalized economy and culture, functioning as centres of global innovation as well as magnets for workers and migrants seeking better job opportunities.

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

But there are clear challenges. These include deep social, spatial and economic inequalities that, in many parts of the world, are being triggered or intensified by rapid growth and leading to precarious housing and slum conditions. Necessary investments in urban areas, the document predicts, may increase dramatically over the coming decade, requiring massive new public investments in urban planning, safety, air and water quality, energy and sanitation.

“There are obstacles to the bottom-up process: Many local communities don’t yet grasp the benefits of metropolitan cohesion.”

Yet there can be huge dividends, the declaration claims, if metro areas are well planned and developed — with inclusive housing, social services, food-security programmes, quality public transportation, green spaces, clean air and water. Compact and mixed-use cities also deliver multiple benefits: job creation, fewer new infrastructure demands, increased equity in access to public services, improved air quality, mitigation of urban sprawl, and cleaner air in the fight against climate change.

But if they’re to deliver their potential benefits, metropolitan regions require a clear legal framework, financing mechanisms, principles of democracy and respect for local autonomy, the declaration states. The document doesn’t spell out precise forms of metropolitan governance but makes clear that strong ones are essential to successful 21st-century urbanization.

[See: A towering challenge: Habitat III must promote municipal fiscal health]

The declaration specifically cites Goal 11 of the newly adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (succeeding the Millennium Development Goals) in its goal to make cities and other human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Further, the document is clearly intended to help set the stage for the New Urban Agenda that’s planned to be adopted at Quito in October.

Guadalajara’s hope: Metro vision

So, can a U. N.-blessed conference on metropolitan areas spark local government reform, a new spirit of collaboration across a sometimes divided and contentious metropolitan region? That was clearly the hope of the sponsors of Guadalajara’s November conference.

There, officials spoke candidly of a need to restore confidence in the city and its surrounding municipalities. These areas have seen a population rise from 4.4 million to 4.8 million since 2010, with developed land expanding from 83 million to 98 million hectares over just the past eight years.

A broad regional planning exercise, to map policies for the coming years, is scheduled to start this month. That process will aim to correct scattered every-municipality-on-its-own planning, to curb uncontrolled growth encroaching outward from the centre, and to address a pattern of massive income inequality.

“Metro regions differ vastly in their characteristics — national, ethnic, economic, physical. But increasingly they’re being seen as the true cities of our time, fusions of centre cities and suburbs that are destined to encompass more than half of the world’s population and to keep climbing through this century.”

The Guadalajara region is the second largest in Mexico. Overall, the country has 63 million people — 56.8 percent of the national population — living in 59 metropolitan regions spread widely across the country.

Jalisco Governor Aristóteles Sandoval, Mayor Enrique Alfaro Ramírez of Guadalajara proper and mayors of surrounding towns turned out in significant numbers for the conference launch. Sessions were filled with talk of metro-wide coordination, innovation in metropolitan governance, of building a common vision for metropolitan Guadalajara.

Integrity in government is clearly a major concern for the region. Pablo Lemus, mayor of one of the region’s municipalities, made this point forcefully, stating that Mexico has a “culture of mistrusting”.

“People fear government wants to steal from them, and there’s a lot of foundation for that opinion,” he said. “Developers typically think government wants a bribe. Everything is based on mistrust.”

The challenge, Lemus continued, is “to shift to a virtuous cycle where we will trust each other — to let groups hear each other’s concerns, to creates a dialogue, to start building trust as a basis for new territorial development planning.”

Land and growth challenges

Land-use issues, the Guadalajara participants heard, have also become central. Mexico’s middle-class population is expanding significantly, but sprawl development is simultaneously spreading rapidly on the periphery of cities.

Developers are buying land at the lowest cost possible for new housing, whether in high-rise buildings or single-family homes. Yet while the private sector often profits from these sales, it is typically left to government agencies — without significant new funding — to create basic infrastructure, new schools, connecting roads and transportation facilities to reach the scattered sites.

Organizers of the Guadalajara conference asked Diane Davis, a Harvard University researcher on Latin American urban development, to give an external view of these trends. And the trends are ominous, she told her audience: While development pressures grow, metropolitan agencies typically lack the power to make the critical housing, transportation and land-related development decisions that would channel growth to areas with adequate services.

[See: Habitat III must rethink the role of housing in sustainable urbanization]

So, sprawl development accelerates. Inevitably, that results in worsened traffic congestion and increased demand for gasoline and electricity, while adding to the greenhouse-gas emissions that global policymakers are seeking to reduce.

There is an alternative, Jane McCrae of Sustainable Cities International told the Guadalajara conferees. That would be the type of development strategy that Vancouver, Canada, has been developing since the 1960s, an approach that focuses on growth in city and town centres with strong public-transportation connections.

Metro message

Looking forward to the Habitat III conference, the World Bank’s Vergara focused on the need to provide indicators that can reflect the sustainability of entire city regions, not just their constituent political parts. Other speakers cited the success of tools for the management of metro areas introduced in Colombia, as well as Brazil’s progress with the 71 metros that now house half of that country’s population and 60 percent of its gross domestic product.

[See: Hundreds of comments offered for indicators on urban SDG]

The Guadalajara sessions ended on an optimistic note. Erik Vittrup Christensen, the UN-Habitat representative in Mexico, noted that the conference had brought together all of the critical local players on municipal policy and that some 1,500 people had registered for the discussions. The conference also saw engagement by and agreement from the state of Jalisco, new networks and contacts created, and a forward-looking plan unveiled that aims to be responsive to the multitude of actors in the region.

In a final resolution, the conferees celebrated their progress in setting the stage of metropolitan governance for their region. In so doing, they also asserted the clear relevance of their work for the Habitat III process and the New Urban Agenda that is expected to emerge from it. Undoubtedly, that is a message that officials and stakeholders in metro areas across the globe will increasingly hear.

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Neal Peirce

Neal Peirce is the founder and editor-in-chief of Citiscope.

Farley Peters

Farley Peters is Citiscope’s deputy editor.