Policymakers at the city, national, and international levels have a rapidly diminishing window of opportunity to allow their responses to catch up with the facts of rapid urbanization. The populations of most developing world cities will double in the next two decades, and failure to respond will carry huge financial, social, and political consequences. Some results are already evident in the spatial inefficiency of thousands of cities, the huge additional costs of retrofitting infrastructure, marginalized communities condemned to live in unrecognized and unserviced slums, anger at huge price increases on staple foods, a generation of youth with limited prospects for education or employment, and the continued marginalization of young girls and women.
Getting cities right—assuring that they are efficient, safe, environmentally, and economically sustainable—is the most important developmental challenge of this and the coming generations. Cities are the places where we will fail, or succeed, in dealing with our global challenges. Even though cities are sometimes presented as concentrations of poverty, degradation, and vice, they are more appropriately understood as centers of culture, social and political progress, and sites of economic development. To achieve this vision, Cities Alliance’s decade of experience and success suggests the most promising ways forward:
1. Urgently improve the policy response.
A deficit of creative ideas fails to deal with existing realities and denies a future that is both certain and predictable. Urbanization is a reality, and it will continue. All attempts to prevent, divert, or slow the process have failed miserably, certainly in the long term. The single most important change needed is a mindset and policy framework based on facts, which anticipates and plans for urban growth.
2. Pay far more attention to small and medium cities.
Only a very small percentage of the world’s population will live and work in mega-cities. The policy challenge is increasingly in small and medium size cities, most likely already ignored, under-resourced and struggling to cope.
3. Reject the urban/rural dichotomy.
Long one of the stalest topics in development, this false and outdated method of compartmentalizing poverty or growth undermines the relationship between urban growth and rural poverty reduction, in which cities provide markets, remittances, and goods to the rural spaces beyond. Neither poverty reduction nor economic growth occurs in discrete locales.
4. Focus on systems of cities.
Using the national economy as a framework, cities should be regarded as interrelated systems that require connections, while allowing for regional differentiation and city-level specialization.
5. Increase cities’ autonomy and accountability.
Cities are too often regarded as either an inferior level of government, or little more than the administrative arm of a higher tier. For real progress, city mayors and officials should be made accountable to their voters and taxpayers, with local innovation and solutions encouraged. This process is more likely to provide solutionsthan distant bureaucrats or committees in regional or national government.
6. Adopt a whole city, long-term perspective.
Too much of city development is weakened by a project-based approach to development, such as trying to solve the challenge of slums only in the slums. Too many cities are weakened by a short-term outlook more concerned with the next elections (or donor’s budget requirements) than with the long-term future of the entire city, viewed from the perspective of the whole and future population. Realistically, city development should adopt a 20- to 30-year time horizon, with administrative boundaries that facilitate long-term planning.
7. Recognize the permanence, and citizenship, of the urban poor.
Possibly the most obvious consequence of inappropriate policies is the systematic exclusion of the urban poor. This results in their diversion to poorly located and dangerous land, where they are forced to obtain services through parallel and expensive markets, and denied access to economic opportunity. The energy and resilience of the urban poor is often the least understood and most under-utilized driver of city development.
8. Unlock urban land markets.
Long a source of power, patronage, speculation, and corruption, opaque and dysfunctional urban land markets have universal pride of place as the most consistent obstacle to sound city development and good governance.
9. Focus on women as development partners.
Just as cities are the hidden agents of development and change, so the role of women in development is neglected, despite their proven role as the most successful vectors of development. We need active steps toward improving girls’ and womens’ access to education, family planning, land and property rights, credit, and political representation. Historically, these changes have
overwhelmingly occurred not on the farm or the village, but in the city.
10. Engage the private sector as partner.
We have no knowledge of any city that has escaped poverty and sustained economic growth without attracting significant private investment. Development assistance should be geared to providing a platform for such investment, and recognize the many guises of the private sector, including the entrepreneurs in the slums.