Countries starting to get message on national urban policies

A vegetable seller in a market in Myanmar's Mandalay region, 2011. Under the country's military government, cities had not been a priority — but that’s now changed. (Happystock/Shutterstock)

PARIS — Some countries have been investing in national policy for cities, but much more progress is needed. That’s the conclusion of a new report released this week, offering a first-ever global snapshot on national policies around cities.

“The Global State of National Urban Policy 2017” was prepared jointly by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and UN-Habitat, the United Nations’ lead agency on urbanization. The two multilaterals are pushing countries to adopt so-called national urban policies to deliver on a suite of global agreements calling for better, more sustainable cities.

“Agreements make headlines, but implementation changes lives,” said OECD Deputy Secretary-General Mari Kiviniemi, speaking at the report’s launch at the organization’s headquarters here.

She was alluding to three landmark agreements from the past two years: the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s 20-year urbanization strategy adopted last year; 2015’s Sustainable Development Goals, an anti-poverty agenda; and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Each of these accords has major urban dimensions.

According to the new report, which is not yet available online, a third of countries have national urban policies. These are generally seen as having been most successful in the areas of human development, spatial integration and economic growth. But the report cautions that moving forward, countries must make sure to address climate change, resilience and environmental sustainability.

[See: Since Habitat III, an uptick in interest around national urban policies]

The two multilaterals, together with a third partner, Brussels-based Cities Alliance, are offering technical assistance to national governments seeking to prepare such policies. Their goal is that half of all countries have a national urban policy in place by 2025.

Getting cities right

The report was launched this week as the OECD hosts dozens of national ministers, city officials, academics and policy experts to dig into the nitty-gritty of national urban policies. It is a fairly new topic area that has not been in vogue among policymakers since heavy-handed experiments in the 1970s. At that time, various attempts made under the guise of national urbanization strategies produced notorious policies such as China’s hukou permit system, which restricts peasants from living in cities.

“National urban policies have been most successful around human development, spatial integration and economic growth. But moving forward, countries must make sure to address climate change, resilience and environmental sustainability.”

Now, however, national governments are tasked with delivering on a package of international accords that impact cities. In response, the multilateral system is urging officials to consider their cities not as a burden but as a responsibility.

“We need effective national urban solutions through better, more ambitious, more coordinated national urban policies,” said OECD Secretary-General Ángel Gurria. He called such policies “a framework to get cities right.”

[See: How to move from creating to implementing a national urban policy]

Nation states, in turn, seem to be starting to get the message. Here in Paris this week, over three dozen countries presented their experiences thus far with national urban policy. These included robust examples in rich countries such as South Korea and Germany, as well as examples from developing nations such as Myanmar and Sudan that, despite their economic situation, see value in planning for urban growth.

One country that brought a concrete example to the table this week is South Africa. That country’s new “Integrated Urban Development Framework” bills itself as “a new deal” for South African cities. Andries Nel, South Africa’s deputy minister for cooperative governance, hailed the plan as a serious attempt to rectify the social strife wrought by apartheid as the country hurdles toward becoming 80 percent urban by 2050.

“There is a high degree of spatial inequality that we need to reverse,” he said.

But a national urban policy can’t be a matter solely of ministers hashing out the details, or they’ll risk repeating the errors of the 1970s. That’s a key message enshrined in the New Urban Agenda — and a lesson that, again, countries appear to be starting to internalize.

“New Urban Agenda implementation requires very good collaboration between the central government and mayors,” said Cameroonian housing and urban development minister Jean-Claude Mbwentchou.

[See: Federal systems don’t preclude national urban policies]

Yet while ministers profess such collaborations in general terms, local government officials are more specific about how that relationship should play out in practice.

“A national urban policy from the federal government is a good idea,” said Abubakar Sani Bello, governor of Niger state in Nigeria. “But we need a state urban policy to make it local, down to the grass roots, so that local government can take care of their affairs.”

Nigeria passed a national urban development policy in 1992. But implementation has been shaky, as lawmakers admitted in a 2012 update, writing of “little achievement to show in terms of implementation.” From Bello’s perspective, “To date very little has been achieved at state and local government levels.”

That’s not to say there are no concrete visions of what a national urban policy could do to please local officials. Amsterdam’s deputy mayor, Erik van der Burg, outlined a clear example:

The city’s port area, recently converted from heavy industry and shipbuilding to high-tech companies and sleek office buildings, is experiencing a residential boom. The city government is happy to take credit for that transition, van der Burg said, but it needs the national government to deliver on necessary new infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, and in turn to loosen the reins on local governments.

[See: How Amsterdam turned a polluted industrial site into its most interesting neighborhood]

“We need fewer rules and regulations,” he said, citing a new national planning law imposing 23 fresh mandates on his government.

Powerful partner

While organizers stress that there is no template for a national urban policy, this week’s gathering has prompted some critical reflections on how countries can move forward. Getting people talking seems to be the first priority.

“A national urban policy from the federal government is a good idea. But we need a state urban policy to make it local, down to the grass roots, so that local government can take care of their affairs.”

Abubakar Sani Bello
Governor of Niger state in Nigeria

In Myanmar, for example, the 2015 election of the National League for Democracy has prompted a significant re-tooling of government policy. Under the previous military government, cities had not been a priority — but that’s now changed. The new civilian administration must deliver on a campaign promise “to construct sustainable cities for long-term protection of the environment, improvement of public services, creation of public spaces and increase of protection areas for cultural heritage,” said Aye Aye Myint, who directs the national urban planning department.

In order to make that aspiration into a reality, Myanmar’s Ministry of Construction has called on the president’s office to form a national urban committee at the ministerial level. But with 30 ministries jockeying for political attention, getting everyone to play nice has been no easy task, she said: “Interministerial coordination is a very big challenge in Myanmar.”

Meanwhile, countries with strong central governments plow ahead regardless of how local governments feel. For example, Angola recently cut a deal with the Chinese government, a major financier for urban infrastructure in Africa. The latter built a turnkey new town, Nova Cidade de Kilamba, some 30 km from the capital Luanda. The Angolan government received the sparkling new city, which cost USD 4 billion to build, without paying any cash. Instead, petroleum-rich Angola will supply China with oil for 20 years.

[See: A cautionary note: Decentralization can lead to centralization]

To the eye of Shlomo “Solly” Angel, a world expert in urbanization and city expansion, this oil-for-infrastructure deal was “criminal” given Luanda’s needs for better roads, sidewalks, public transit, schools and hospitals. “There is a lot of infrastructure missing there that you could buy and repair” for that price, he said. “Instead, the government, as a national policy, chose to throw away all of this money into a ‘smart city’ outside of Luanda.”

Such a case study is a warning as the international system pushes ahead with its advocacy efforts. “When we’re talking national urban policies,” Angel warned, “we have to realize there are national policymakers out there who have ideas about how to spend money on urban issues that we have to be leery about.”

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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