Tensions of urban governance

Cities have a huge part to play in meeting the challenges of the 21st century but, with often competing priorities, addressing these will not be straightforward.

LSE's Michael McQuarrie, Nuno F da Cruz and Philipp Rode look at the realities of the New Urban Agenda, and why existing social scientific theories are inadequate to the challenges of the moment.

Michael McQuarrie


Michael McQuarrie

Associate Professor of Sociology, LSE

Nuno F da Cruz


Nuno F da Cruz

Assistant Professorial Research Fellow (LSE Cities) and Coordinator of the New Urban Governance project at LSE

Philipp Rode


Philipp Rode

Executive Director of LSE Cities

A view of the sky from below some tall buildings

Habitat III, the United Nations’ last Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, concluded in 2016 with a multinational consensus recognising the importance of cities in meeting the many challenges that will confront 21st century society.

The issues highlighted by the UN’s New Urban Agenda, however, are by no means an easy task: poverty must be grappled with, but it must be done by using sustainable energy; infrastructure must be (re)built, replaced and transformed, but it shouldn’t conflict with the aspirations of urban residents; people have a right to affordable housing and clean water, but it is unclear where the resources for providing these are to come from. 

Urban Age conference Paul Clark Urban Age_747x560
Urban Age conference

Nonetheless, the New Urban Agenda adopted at the Habitat III conference does demonstrate a profound awareness that cities are being transformed in their demographics, their economies, their politics and their institutions. Such radical transformations are inherently uncertain, which presents the opportunity for fundamentally re-imagining what the city is, making both utopian and dystopian outcomes potentially more realisable.

The key question is: who gets to decide which of these outcomes will be realised?

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to understand how cities are governed, and it is this understanding that we hoped to achieve with LSE Cities’ New Urban Governance project.

"Urban life has become the new normal"
Urban life has become the new normal

Using a survey of urban managers from 127 cities from all continents and 53 countries, and a deep-dive investigation of the governance of transport in New York and London, we came away with an awareness of contemporary urban governance that points to several insights and conclusions.

First, our existing social scientific theories of urban governance are inadequate to the challenges of the moment. Social scientists have been preoccupied with questions of who governs cities, the best principles of urban management and the dynamics of urban growth (notably, not urban decline).

Equipping cities to address key problems

But while these questions remain important, and while the insights they have developed continue to be relevant, theoretical research approaches are not well adapted to tackle the core questions about governance today. Devolving powers and strengthening local governments are regarded as necessary conditions for equipping cities with the capacity to address key problems of social inclusion, but this also raises issues of territorial equity. Cities are utilising more participatory forms of governance, but increasingly they also have to make strategic decisions and manage issues that are not necessarily amenable to popular input.

Second, cities rarely have much political or legal authority to act. Many national constitutions do not recognise municipalities as entities that are guaranteed autonomy. Instead, municipalities have various forms of devolved authority over local decision-making. In national polities that privilege rural power, like India and the United States, this can be a severe constraint. In polities that have highly centralised governments, like Iran and the United Kingdom, this can mean that a few select cities are privileged sites for state investment. This tension is especially evident today as national governments are increasingly threatened or occupied by politicians representing illiberal, parochial and intolerant policy positions.

Liberal democracy has few contemporary national defenders, but it has countless municipal ones. One of the most obvious ways limited municipal authority manifests itself is in the fiscal arena. Cities often have limited authority to raise revenue and rely heavily on fees and property taxes. This can drive property redevelopment and gentrification. However, it also means that urban governors must prioritise their relationships with corporate leaders, businesses and philanthropies. Consequently, the roles of public-private partnerships, private financing and financial engineering have all expanded in cities.

Costly infrastructure often becomes a key point of leverage

Our research has also revealed the extremely complex layers of scalar authority that operate in cities. City governments usually only have relevant authority over a few policy sectors. Instead, state, national and supranational scales of governance control an array of urban issues and policy arenas. Transport, for example, is an arena that frequently involves state, national and supranational scales of governance for everything from planning to maintenance, to capital investment and even labour-management relations. More broadly, (costly) infrastructure often becomes a key point of leverage in inter-scalar conflicts.

"Nearly 90% of urban growth will take place in Asia and Africa. An additional 2.5 billion people will be living in cities by 2050. Nearly 80% of urban infrastructure that will exist in India in 2050 has yet to be built.
An additional 2.5 billion people will be living in cities by 2050. Nearly 80% of urban infrastructure that will exist in India in 2050 has yet to be built

Nonetheless, given the ambitions of the New Urban Agenda, it is necessary to ask whether municipalities are an appropriate scale of governance for realising these goals. Based on our research, the answer is mostly “no”. While cities that have privileged positions in inter-scalar systems of governance and economic geographies often do have the resources to be thought leaders and institutional innovators, expecting cities to deliver such positive innovation is likely to lead to disappointment. Most cities do not have access to the requisite resources for transformative innovation, much less the resources for the sorts of infrastructural and institutional modernisation that are necessary to meet the goals of this agenda.

Third, while urban innovation cannot reasonably be expected to provide the basis for realising the scale of transformation necessary to reach the ambitious goals of the Habitat III conference, municipal governments are being creative in figuring out ways to leverage resources to meet governance challenges. Porto Alegre, Brazil, for example, is home to one of the greatest experiments in citizen involvement in governance of the last 30 years. There, giving citizens authority over a small component of the municipal budget became a tool for leveraging better governance, innovative solutions and the generation of renewed citizen investment in local government.

Now sanctioned by the World Bank and the United Nations, participatory budgeting is widely understood to be a “best practice”. Still, technical innovations are often preferred because they usually do not challenge existing relations of authority even as they transform relations of power.

In conclusion, the tensions between different scales of political authority and human social organisation are nothing new. The New Urban Agenda was a definitive attempt to deliver a negotiated and widely accepted set of principles and aspirations. By definition, a universal blueprint for realising a positive vision of 21st century urbanisation – which would certainly be welcomed by some decision-makers – would be impossible to achieve, given the underlying complexity and context dependency. Still, the principles are certainly necessary to provide a framework of values for the governance solutions that will be necessary to meet current and future urban challenges. Unfortunately, many of these issues are simply beyond the scope of municipalities to deal with.

The 21st century will be a century of infrastructural politics for cities and its implications for both urban governance and urban residents will be profound. The fact that these associated problems are viewed as distinctly urban problems reinforces the idea that cities are self-determining and autonomous. Although much of this is a desirable framework for politics when cities are bulwarks of liberal, social and cultural tolerance against national states governed by ethnonationalist political projects, it is downright destructive when we imagine that it is up to cities to meet the challenges of the 21st century on their own.

Shaping Cities in a Urban Age book cover
Shaping Cities in an Urban Age book cover

Shaping Cities in an Urban Age - out now

This abridged essay is one of 37 appearing in Shaping Cities in an Urban Age, available to order from phaidon.com.

With essays by leading policymakers, practitioners and scholars, the publication offers new perspectives on the dynamics of urban change. It tracks how cities like Addis Ababa, London and Delhi have transformed since 1990 and compares patterns of growth, inequality and energy consumption of other global cities including New York, Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro. This richly illustrated volume brings together authoritative research and fresh insights that explain the complexities of urbanisation.

Edited by Ricky Burdett and Philipp Rode, this is the third book produced by the Urban Age project, a global investigation into the future of cities. Shaping Cities in an Urban Age is out now. 

Book launch podcast

Listen to the podcast "Shaping Cities in an Urban Age"