Explainer: What is a national urban policy?


In most of the world’s countries, especially in Africa and Asia, cities are growing fast. People and capital are rapidly flowing into urban centres in search of opportunity.

But is there any guiding vision behind this process of urbanization? Will it lead to well-planned, sustainable and prosperous cities where every person has a chance to succeed? Or will it unfold haphazardly, with residents lacking basic services like water and sanitation, choking on pollution and struggling to escape the poverty and insecurity of informal settlements?

These are the questions underlying a new global push for countries to adopt national urban policies. One third of the world’s countries already have some kind of national strategy guiding development of cities, according to UN-Habitat, the lead United Nations agency on cities. Now, a new global effort known as the National Urban Policy Programme aims for half of the world’s countries to have them by 2025.

But what exactly is a national urban policy? And how do countries get one? Read on for Citiscope’s guide to this emerging topic.

What is a national urban policy?

National urban policies may be best understood by what most countries are missing.

Cities are hubs of people, jobs and wealth, yet even many of the world’s most developed countries have no particular strategy for their success. In fact, many countries historically have taken a hostile attitude toward cities. Especially in rural countries, governments have viewed cities as drains on resources and competing centres of power. As a result, in many parts of the world, local authorities are weak institutions, left to fend for themselves against powerful ministers or other levels of government.

At the same time, other development priorities can impact cities in a big way. Countries may have policies to boost certain industries. They may spend lots of money on roads, ports, housing and other infrastructure. They may even transfer money directly to local authorities. But beneath it all, there usually is no big-picture thinking about whether those decisions make cities stronger or weaker.

By contrast, a country with a national urban policy has developed some vision guiding the growth and management of cities.

UN-Habitat has a more formal definition: A national urban policy is “a coherent set of decisions derived through a deliberate government-led process of coordinating and rallying various actors for a common vision and goal that will promote more transformative, productive, inclusive and resilient urban development for the long term.”

What form does a national urban policy take?

Such a strategy can take many forms. It may come as a single law, executive order or other enactment by a national legislature, ministry or head of state. Or it may come more informally, as a series of separate actions or plans that, taken together, add up to a coherent urban policy. But most importantly, it has to represent a singular vision shared across all corners of government. 

Why should countries consider enacting national urban policies?

In the words of Ángel Gurria, the secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), countries need these policies in order to “get cities right”.

Oftentimes, decisions made at the national-government level harm cities, whether by design or inadvertently. A prime example is the Interstate Highway System built decades ago in the United States. From policymaking corridors in Washington, the national network of highways looked great on a map, and it did stitch together a vast country and facilitate the movement of goods and people. But building massive freeways through city centres destroyed many urban neighbourhoods and turbocharged the flight of residents and businesses to sprawling suburbs.

The overriding idea behind a national urban policy, then, is to make sure that this urban lens figures prominently into the decision-making of any national government — on transportation, housing, trade, health and much more.

Who has developed a national urban policy?

Lots of places, especially in the rapidly urbanizing developing world. UN-Habitat is working with more than 30 countries on the issue, mostly in Africa and the Middle East. According to some estimates, one in three African countries already has a national urban policy. South Africa launched a new policy, the Integrated Urban Development Framework, in 2017.

[See: Countries starting to get the message on national urban policies]

Of the 35 advanced economies that are part of the OECD, 15 already have a national urban policy. And according to a 2016 report, nearly all OECD countries have some form of policy in development.

In Latin America, Chile has a very successful urban policy, and Argentina is in the middle of crafting one. Slovakia and Serbia in Eastern Europe are both mulling over the idea. Vietnam has had one since the early 2000s, while nearby Myanmar is just starting the process.

So, how does a country develop such a policy?

A common first step is to diagnose current urban conditions and analyze how existing policies deal with them. That can start with a task force of experts or the commissioning of a national report on the state of urban affairs. For many countries, the U. N.’s Habitat III summit on cities in 2016, which requested countries to submit reports on how urbanization has played out over the last 20 years, served as a starting point.

A second step is to convince national and local governments to enter a dialogue, in broad consultation with academics, urban-focused NGOs, activists and others who have a stake in the future of cities. In recent years, countries such as Argentina, Liberia and Israel, have hosted meetings known as “national urban forums”. The idea is to get all these players into the same room to develop a common vision for what a national urban policy should look like. UN-Habitat supports dozens of such forums around the world.

[See: With national urban policies, the process is the goal]

Third comes the actual drafting of a policy that can be passed as a law, promulgated as an executive order, adopted by ministries or in some way formally enacted. UN-Habitat again is eager to help with this stage and even assigns staff to a ministry to assist with day-to-day operations as a policy is prepared and rolled out. In Rwanda, for example, a UN-Habitat expert embedded in the national government helped shepherd the country’s landmark National Urbanization Policy to successful adoption in 2015.

Why is this a hot topic now?

Cities are playing an increasingly prominent role in global discussions of sustainability and development.

Most directly, at the Habitat III conference, some 167 countries adopted a 20-year urbanization strategy called the New Urban Agenda. One of the concrete steps that national governments can take to meet their obligations under the voluntary, non-binding agreement is to adopt a national urban policy.

Cities are also crucial players in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, a global framework for coordinating efforts around ending poverty and hunger, combating inequality and disease and building a just and stable world. One of the 17 global goals specifically addresses the need for cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Cities are also recognized as crucial actors in meeting emissions-reduction targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

In 2016, the OECD, UN-Habitat and the Brussels-based global partnership known as Cities Alliance launched a joint effort called the National Urban Policy Programme. It aims for half of the world’s countries to have national urban policies by 2025. In May of 2017, mayors and urban ministers from around the world gathered in Paris for the Second International Conference on National Urban Policies, adding momentum to the cause.

Haven’t there been national urban policies before?

Yes. From the 1950s to the 1970s, several countries attempted heavy-handed urban policies designed to reconfigure urban areas or to constrain the growth of cities by keeping people in rural areas. They produced some notorious results.  

For example, China’s hukou permit system restricted peasants from living in cities — a policy that continues to make it difficult for many migrants to cities to access government services.

Cuba sought to stem an “urban crisis” after the Cuban Revolution sent streams of migrants to big cities such as Havana. The country implemented laws and programmes intended to stimulate the agricultural sector and redistribute housing in urban areas.

Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) attempted multiple times to decentralize population away from the capital and largest city, Kinshasa, by building up secondary cities and sending unemployed city dwellers back to their home villages.

The United States embarked on a federally-funded national “urban renewal” programme starting in the 1950s. The programme demolished large swaths of central cities deemed to be blighted, and replaced them with highways, hospitals, sports arenas and universities. Residents displaced by urban renewal policies were often poor and black, prompting critics to deride the programme with the nickname “Negro Removal”.

What’s different now?

The top-down urbanization policies of the past are yielding to a more balanced approach today, driven in part by geopolitical trends. On the whole, there are stronger democracies and more vibrant local governments in many parts of the world than there were 30 or 40 years ago. There’s also a growing sense that mayors and local governments can be critical actors in addressing global challenges such as climate change or human migration.

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

Latin America represents an ideal case study. Chile adopted its first national urban policy in 1979, in the throes of a dictatorship, and imposed extreme ideas like the abolition of city limits. Chile peacefully transitioned to a democracy in 1990 and repealed the old urban law ten years later.

In 2013, the Chilean legislature passed the new National Urban Development Policy. An advisory committee of 28 people representing civil society, labour unions, academia, members of parliament, current and former ministers, and professional experts drafted the legislation in order to reflect the current on-the-ground-reality as Chilean cities tackle issues like housing, traffic, environmental protection and sprawl.

Does a federal system preclude such an approach?

At first glance, the bedrock principle of federalism — that different spheres of government are separately responsible for different aspects of the common good — could suggest that national governments have no business meddling in the business of cities.

But as urban researcher Abigail Friendly argues, there are a number of examples where some form of urban policy has started at the national level in federalized systems.

For starters, the U. S. urban renewal policy stemmed from national legislation, the Federal Housing Act of 1954. Shortly thereafter, the U. S. government created a Department of Housing and Urban Development. More recently, Australia formed a Ministry of Cities and the Built Environment.

While such cabinet-level posts are crucial players in urban affairs, their mere existence is not evidence of a national urban policy. For that, believers that federalism and urban policy are compatible often look to Brazil.

In 2001, Brazil  passed the landmark City Statute, a progressive piece of legislation that enshrines the right to housing and, more broadly, the “right to the city” — the notion that all citizens have a legal right to decent shelter in cities, even over the economic interests of property owners. Two years later, the Ministry of Cities was formed, the first such ministry in the world to have as its sole mandate the encouragement of equitable development in the nation’s cities.


Citiscope: Find all of our coverage on national urban policies here.

Report: National Urban Policy in OECD Countries 2017

Conference: The 2nd International Conference on National Urban Policy (15-18 May, 2017)

Urban Policy Reviews: China, Chile, Kazakhstan, Mexico

Publications: A library of resources on national urban policies

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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