National urban policies are about seeing cities as core to the collective good

A girl walks through the flooded streets of her neighbourhood in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti, 2012. (Logan Abassi/UN Photo)

When it comes to the age-old negotiation between local and national governments, African Centre for Cities co-founder Susan Parnell sees two extremes.

On the one side are those who believe that cities have all the answers, and that if they were just unshackled from the rules set out by national governments, they could provide robust economies and just societies for all. That vision is crystallized in the late Benjamin Barber’s book “If Mayors Ruled the World.”

On the other side are the staunch multilateralists, who believe that postwar institutions such as the United Nations — by definition a “countries club” where only national governments have the final say — know best.

But neither extreme is likely to result in the most effective policy-making to benefit cities, say Parnell, who is based in Cape Town. Cities can’t pretend that political forces in the national capital are irrelevant, and national governments should not be so imperious as to ignore their biggest source of economic growth — and increasingly, the home of the majority of their citizens.

Parnell laid out this vision in May in a keynote address at the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris during a major international gathering to generate momentum on “national urban policies”.

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

Citiscope’s Gregory Scruggs sat down with Parnell after the talk to learn more about her view of national urban policies. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Q: What exactly is a national urban policy? You presented a series of reminders that it’s no one such thing.

A: I’m delighted to see a much more systematic focus on the urban question, one that needs to be multi-scale and multi-sector and multi- all of these kinds of things. If that takes the form of a national urban policy, that’s great.

But if it becomes a very formulaic exercise like a poverty-reduction strategy or a risk-reduction strategy, I think that’s potentially quite dangerous. Because countries and cities are so different, and you need to allow for very different forms. In come cases, it will be led by the presidency, and in other cases it will grow out of a climate adaptation strategy. In some cases, maybe even a civil-society-driven process.

[See: Explainer: What is a national urban policy?]

The New Urban Agenda actually sets out some of the things that [national urban policies] should do. What we expect of national urban policies now is sort of different from what we expected from them before.

Q: So this isn’t the first time we’ve had national urban policies?

A: No, we’ve been doing national urban policies for a very long time. There’s a very dark history for some countries with national urban policies. South Africa, Indonesia, China, Cuba have all conducted national spatial planning processes that were called national urbanization strategies, which were intended to keep people out of the cities — to enable the cities to be developed at a pace where you could contain the population. In other words, you didn’t end up with “ugly, dirty” squatters and unemployed people: You keep those people out of urban areas.

The African Centre for Cities’ Susan Parnell.

They used things like migration controls. Sometimes they tried to invest in rural areas. And some of the more positive things: We’ll put a capital city, we’ll put in an industrial decentralization policy. We’ll take jobs from out of the city into the rural areas to keep people away. So that’s what used to be called national urbanization policies in the ’70s.

Then that shifted. People began to realize that it wasn’t so easy to control, or the influx-control policies failed, or that there was quite a positive thing to allowing agglomeration. So they said, let’s just let the spatial patterns follow the economic patterns. So wherever there’s economic activity, let’s let that investment take place.

[See: 4 things countries are doing right now to implement the New Urban Agenda]

The point about the national urban policies now is that they’re not just about the economy. If you look at the values that are embedded in the 2030 Agenda, they are ecological, they are sociological, they are progressive in a way that is not simply economic. It’s not just about the economic well-being. And they’re much more process oriented. So the idea that you can get away with a national urban policy that doesn’t include a whole range of stakeholders — it’s not going to cut it. It’s got to be participative.

Q: What are the demographic trends making national urban policies a pressing government priority?

A: It’s not just the growth and the total number of people — that is really important. But there are two aspects: One is that you’ve got a lot of people who are moving from the countryside into the town. But you’ve also got an expansion in the number of people living in town. So it’s not just the tipping point that everybody points to and the fact that that’s concentrated in the Global South, where cities are growing fast and there’s not much capacity to do it.

But it’s the other stuff, which is also demographic. We’ve got increasing levels of wealth, where people are consuming up more material — and by “material”, I mean things like building houses for people, as we should be. The material infrastructure for humans is now increasingly urban. That means that the processes that produce those things need a lot more thoughtful attention.

[See: Can Sweden’s national urban policy address unsustainable consumption?]

Q: How well do national urban policies potentially respond to the suite of global agreements that you refer to as the “global urban agenda”?

A: The difficulty that you’ve got in running national urban policies now is that we’re asking countries to convene quite complicated processes. Because there are a lot of people who think that countries are no longer legitimate, because cities are increasingly powerful and should be given greater power — particularly on a global stage. That’s a counter view to the one that says nation states are the ones that have got the membership of the multinational organizations.

Q: So it’s an oxymoron to be asking national government to be writing urban policies?

A: Of course, and that’s particularly so in countries where it’s not even the cities or the nation states that are the major players. For a lot of countries — not just African countries but certainly in Africa — there are a lot of other governance regimes, like the traditional authorities who are the de facto powers that deliver urban living, urban life, urban form.  

Q: Or corporations, you mentioned.

A: Exactly, it may be global corporations. Whether you’re talking about the private sector or traditional authorities, it’s not just cities or nations. So who should be convening systematic thinking about what to do in cities? Nation states are one of the potential parties that you’d want to hold to account, but they’re not the only one.

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

The reason that we need to have national urban policies, the reason that we need an urban agenda, is not just to make what happens in cities better, but to make what happens in cities —  which impacts on everything else — better. In other words, it’s both for and from the city. So the reason for the focus on the city — it’s a city-centric view, but it is not a city-essentialist view. There’s a collective good to focusing on cities and making cities work better.

With the climate issue, for instance, it’s very easy to see that. Because you will never reach the climate targets, which are global targets, for future generations, if you don’t change what goes on in cities.

Q: Your new book, Building a Capable State: Service Delivery in Post-Apartheid South Africa, addresses this point in your home country. What do you mean by building a capable state?

A: Just as participation is an important part of a national urban policy now, I think that there is an expectation of understanding that this isn’t just about values. You’re not putting forward a normative position that there’s an expectation from the [Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs] that there will be an implementation plan, and that puts responsibility on the state.

Philosophically, that’s really important to the Global North and to the Global South. In the Global North, you basically have eroded state capacity to deliver what you need to do, and you may need to rebuild the state. Whereas in the Global South, the state doesn’t exist in the ways that you need it to do. And so the expectation of a national urban policy is that you will actually say what you’re going to do institutionally in order to be able to do that. And we think of that as building a capable state — a state that is capable of delivering the SDGs.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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