Need to create an urban planning agency? Here’s how — and why.

A model of the redesigned waterfront in Belgrade, Serbia, 2014. (Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock)

For cities, urban planning agencies comprise an effective, inclusive and resilience-minded tool to chart their futures. But if a city lacks such an office, how should local authorities go about setting one up?

Help on this question has now arrived in the form of a detailed handbook for city leaders, particularly in developing countries.

The Guide to Create an Urban Planning Agency is designed to assist cities implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This global framework, which went into effect last year, is aimed at addressing the most severe challenges faced by cities, including poverty, inequality and environmental degradation. Local and national governments will strive to deliver on the 17 goals over the next decade and a half.

The new guide was published by the French Development Agency, the lead agency for France’s assistance programmes for emerging nations, and the French Network of Urban Planning Agencies, a non-profit that fosters dialogue on urban issues.

A central theme is that urban planning bodies are tools that emphasize shared knowledge and multi-stakeholder input. They are well-equipped to tackle a wide range of issues, including climate change, the transition to renewable energy, innovative forms of governance and inclusive development models.

With their heavy reliance on data and research, these agencies are particularly adept at assisting municipal leaders with identifying complications and deficiencies that might not be readily apparent.

[See: Developing countries face a catastrophic lack of urban planning capacity]

The guide outlines the most compelling reasons to create an urban planning agency:

  • Long-term strategies: Planning agencies bring stakeholders together to hone strategic visions and steer implementation with pilot projects.
  • Local knowledge: Public feedback, data collection, management and the sharing of ideas can inform city leaders in their decision-making.
  • Pooled resources: Partnerships, affiliations and exchanges enable cities to maximize resources by leveraging the expertise of other entities.

Wide variety

Urban planning agencies come in several forms. In some nations, such as Egypt, Russia, Morocco and Vietnam, they are overseen by national governments, the guide says. In France, Mexico, India and Brazil, on the other hand, these agencies operate in conjunction with local and national authorities.

“Urban planning bodies are tools that emphasize shared knowledge and multi-stakeholder input. They are well-equipped to tackle a wide range of issues, including climate change, the transition to renewable energy, innovative forms of governance and inclusive development models.”

London and Barcelona favour public and private multi-stakeholder approaches to strategic planning. Additional models include partnerships with academia and professional workshops conducted by UN-Habitat, ISOCARP (the International Society of City and Regional Planners) and other cities-focused groups.

[See: African cities urged to take holistic approach to urban planning]

From long-term development and transit strategies for emerging cities in Africa and India to new approaches to governance in South America, urban planning agencies play a pivotal role. Here are a few planning efforts featured in the guide:

  • Master plan for Bamako: The city council’s sweeping blueprint for Mali’s capital addresses waste management, mobility, land rights and project financing options.
  • Collaboration among Indian cities: Cochin and Nagpur, two mid-sized cities in different states, have teamed up on plans for light rail, river sanitation and other initiatives.
  • Joburg’s spatial transformation: The goal is to better integrate Johannesburg’s city centre with the townships of Soweto and Alexandra. This strategy involves public investment in housing, utilities and transport.
  • Metro governance in Rio: The Câmara Metropolitana de Integração Governamental unites the government of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro with 22 municipalities, including Rio’s city government.

Some of the world’s most innovative and tech-savvy cities rely heavily on resource centres to shape urban design. In Curitiba, Brazil, the Instituto de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano de Curitiba has influenced many of the city’s innovations. The Curitiba Urban Planning and Research Institute was formed in 1965.

[See: What can cities learn from Sri Lanka’s landfill tragedy?]

The Seoul Institute in South Korea is a multidisciplinary urban research facility that aids the municipal government with decision-making. Founded in 1992, the institute conducts surveys and research and gathers public input via its website, the guide says.

Ingredients for success

Successful urban planning agencies share some common attributes. Essential ingredients include political support at both the local and national government levels, the authors write. Development stakeholders must be onboard and funding models viable. Planning agencies with a “cross-disciplinary approach” require coordination among municipal authorities and offices.

Two other critical components must be earned: trust and reputation. Urban planning agencies have to foster “legitimacy” by demonstrating that their decisions are in the best interests of their cities, the guide says. And they have to maintain that trust over long periods by maintaining the highest standards and hiring the most qualified individuals. 

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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