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Planning in Advance, at Scale, and in Stages: New Urban Planning Goes Global

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Planning in Advance, at Scale, and in Stages: New Urban Planning Goes Global

Contributed by Christopher W. Williams, Ph.D., Director, Washington Office, UN-Habitat.

Chris Williams is responsible for working with policymakers and practitioners to promote sustainable urbanization in U.S. foreign policy and development assistance. This report is adapted from preliminary concept papers currently under preparation.


Under the leadership of its new executive director, Dr. Joan Clos, UN-Habitat is developing a new approach to carry out its twin mandate: adequate shelter for all and sustainable urban development. Focus will be placed primarily on urban planning as an entry point to sustainable urbanization and will also include four additional elements: urban mobility, energy, legislation/institutions, and employment and municipal finance.

As part of its current organizational review, the agency is developing new internal institutional arrangements to offer member states practical tools in each of these areas. This will result in a new generation of collaborative initiatives that bring together urban poor movements, local governments, and private industry as well as central governments. It will also involve new partnership agreements with a wide cross-section of international and regional institutions that will help ensure investment follow through, knowledge sharing, and critical reflection. The geographical focus will be cities in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia but will also include select metropolitan areas in Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and East and Central Asia. The goal is to pioneer a new approach to urban planning that other national and international institutions can contribute to and roll out at scale.

The emphasis on new urban planning is predicated on the assumption that if the growth of cities is planned at scale, in advance, and in phases to address projected growth over the next 30 years, fast-growing cities, particularly those in developing countries, will be successful in transforming the very real threat of poverty into an opportunity for national economic growth. Rather than confine their work to upgrading existing slums, cities can get ahead of their urban future and prevent new slums from being formed.

A central challenge is that urban planning has been perceived historically as too complex to be effective. City managers tend to sideline it as an obsolete field. This negative perception of urban planning and the persistence of laissez faire attitudes, have created nothing short of an urban planning crisis. It has resulted in the inadequate provision of shelter for growing urban populations. It has limited the extension of adequate and affordable services and infrastructure, eroded public spaces, and contributed to urban sprawl as well as the situation in much of the Global South, where slums are the dominant urban form. Furthermore, poor advance planning for city growth has contributed to massive inefficiencies in cities, especially poorly functional systems of urban mobility.

Effective urban mobility is a precondition for economic activity and social participation. However, the lack of investment in well-planned mobility systems in some cities has resulted in high levels of congestion, social exclusion, accidents, air pollution, and costly energy consumption. These and related issues connect directly to urban energy. Cities, which are home to more than half of humanity, consume 60 to 80 percent of the world’s energy resources and produce 70 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Hence cities will play a major role in improving energy-efficiency-reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

For all the above-mentioned components to contribute significantly to sustainable urban development, appropriate legal, institutional, and governance frameworks need to be in place. The fourth strategic priority area of the new approach at UN-Habitat – urban legislation and institutions – tackles these foundational issues. Of crucial importance are strong indigenous institutions that residents regard as credible and equitable, capable of allocating services among all residents, not just a small, elite cadre.

As we find in many metropolitan areas, the absence of solid institutional and regulatory frameworks results in unnecessary densification and extension of cities. This generates unhealthy competition, conflict, and more inefficient use of resources while exacerbating urban poverty. Further, ineffectual legal systems represent huge transaction costs, generate disincentives to investment, encourage an informal economy, and aggravate the exclusion of city residents, all of which hinder economic growth.

Although cities increasingly are the driving force of their respective national economies, they do not always have the resources to realize this role. Urban economy and finance – the fifth pillar of the new approach – is thus a crucial entry point for sustainable urban development. UN-Habitat intends to strengthen its support to local authorities to create the conditions for job creation and improved municipal finance for basic service provision. New urban planning can serve as a potential catalyst for economic growth. Strategic, gradual expansion of city boundaries, for example, can create wealth that, if properly harnessed, can finance investments in infrastructure and attract private capital. These and related tools of land capture offer opportunities for fast-tracking manufacturing and ensuring balanced territorial development in cities, peri-urban areas and surrounding agricultural regions.

UN-Habitat’s recent report, Urban World: Cities and Land Rights further details elements of this new approach.