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City futures in a global era

Robin Hambleton examines the role of governance in managing the urban explosion

It is not difficult to imagine two very different futures for cities. An alarming scenario sees globalization threatening local jobs as well as the natural environment. Social divisions widen, poor quality urban development predominates and social disintegration results. On this interpretation the city becomes a balkanized world with consumers living isolated lives in separate fortified enclaves. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Political tensions draw forth the erosion of civil liberties as governments struggle to manage the ungovernable, unsafe city. Not quite Bladerunner, but heading that way.

Urban scenarios

A more optimistic scenario suggests that global awareness is growing as never before. Transnational migrants refresh the culture, economic vitality and politics of increasingly lively urban areas. In many cities mutual understanding among different ethno-religious groups improves, as diverse communities come to understand each other and work out ways of living together. In this scenario local governments enjoy a massive expansion of power enabling locally elected leaders to develop and implement policies that reflect the distinctiveness of different places and long established traditions. Local democracy is revitalized, the public realm expands, inclusive community planning and urban design reach new heights and cities re-establish themselves as centres of culture and civilized living.

While these two scenarios can be criticized for being too simplistic, they have the virtue of reminding us that cities across the world face choices the future is not necessarily some kind of 'straight line' projection of the recent past. Societies can, within constraints, create very different kinds of cities. In 2004, when I was dean of a college in Chicago, we hosted an international conference on City Futures and we decided to challenge presenters to examine alternative urban scenarios (1). We were very pleased with the response urban researchers and scholars from 36 countries presented over 160 papers, all the panels were cross-national and many of the papers questioned conventional wisdom. In addition, leading political figures, including Britain's former deputy prime minister John Prescott, gave presentations and answered challenging questions put by participants.

Just published is an edited book bringing together updated versions of some of the best papers presented at the City Futures Conference (2). It brings together contributions from twenty scholars and covers debates relating to urban governance in all continents. What are some of the key messages from this global analysis?

The economic, political, social, environmental and cultural changes implied by the term 'globalization' are truly startling. However, some writers overlook the importance of place and ascribe too much power to global forces. For example, Tom Friedman, in The World is Flat (2005), suggests that globalization means that the world has now been 'flattened'. Horizontal connectivity aided by computers, e-mail, networks, teleconferencing and dynamic new software mean that, according to Friedman, it is now possible for more people than ever to collaborate in real time with more other people on more different kinds of work from more different corners of the planet and on a more equal footing than at any previous time in the history of the world. The authors in our book take the view, however, that the world is not 'flat', as Friedman contends.

Rather, it needs to be recognized that modern global forces map onto an uneven terrain of politics and power, and that this unevenness remains even in an era of hyper connectivity. Contributors to our book show how globalization produces new centres and margins within the global economic system. Cities occupying strategic nodes within this system are advantaged. They become magnets for people, investment, resources and power. Cities outside these flows are disadvantaged and can spiral into decline. It follows, therefore, that the world is far from 'flat'. Rather there are significant peaks and troughs in the landscape of economic advantage.

More than that, as well as sharp variations in economic vibrancy among cities (and city regions), remarkable shifts are taking place within cities. Thus, even in the advantaged cities with spectacular levels of inward investment, the gaps between the wealthy and the poor are continuing to widen. How these uneven dynamics are understood and managed become central challenges for the way we govern cities.

Our urban future

The evidence suggests that urbanization trends are just as startling as globalization trends. Indeed, the two are heavily inter-linked. It is a mistake, however, to allow talk of globalization to obscure the importance of urbanization per se. Given the remarkable and inexorable movement of people into cities and towns in the modern era, urbanization needs to sit alongside globalization as a key driver of societal change. More people now live in urban areas than in the entire history of the world. More than that, it is now the case that the urban population outnumbers the rural.

In 2005 most of the 6.5 billion people on the planet lived in rural areas roughly 3.3 billion rural and 3.2 billion urban. In 2007 demographers argue about the precise date - the urban population of the world overtook the rural. More to the point, the population projections for the planet suggest that the world urban population is set to rocket. Figure 1 shows how the overall population of the world is set to climb from 6.5 billion in 2005 to 8.2 billion in 2030. By then five billion people (or 61% of the world population) will live in urban areas. This is a staggering increase of 1.8 billion in the world urban population in a comparatively short space of time.

This urban population growth is spectacular. From a public policy and a city planning point of view it is just as important to record that this growth is mainly happening in areas that have not seen much in the way of urbanization in the past. As Mike Davis argues in Planet of Slums (2006) most of this surging urban expansion will occur in the developing countries. He notes, correctly, that the scale and velocity of Third World urbanization dwarfs even that of Victorian Europe.

Government v. governance

What should the role of governments be in responding to the unprecedented challenges of globalization and urbanization? Can our democratically accountable institutions (whether supra national, national or local) take a lead in shaping urban futures? Or are cities now best seen as helpless victims in a global flow of events a flow that is shaped decisively by the interests of global capital?

Authors in the book examine current approaches to city leadership and urban management and offer new insights on this debate in particular, on the interplay between 'government' and 'governance'. During the 1980s, when many national governments began to disinvest in cities, due to self imposed resource constraints, governance emerged as a means by which cities could continue to maintain public services through partnerships with actors from the private and non-profit sectors. The governance concept - loosely defined as government working in partnership with the private sector and civil society - gained in importance and now has many advocates in both developed and developing countries.

Couched differently in different countries, common themes in the debates that brought about the shift from government to governance were a recognition that the state 'cannot go it alone'; that no one organization had a monopoly of wisdom in relation to solving urban challenges; and that new and more inclusive approaches to community representation and leadership needed to be developed. Driven by public purpose all these motivations signaled a desire to strengthen the government's capacity to work with a range of stakeholders to solve societal problems.

Critics of the governance approach point out, however, that some of the protagonists sought to downgrade the role of government for ideological reasons. Certainly, politicians on the radical right were attracted to the notion of governance because they saw it as a way of 'rolling back the state'. For them, a smokescreen of rhetoric about partnership working could be used to off-load welfare state responsibilities onto civil society. Allied to this critique is the argument that governance models can weaken democratic accountability. There is now a growing body of international evidence demonstrating that crucial urban development decisions decisions involving huge sums of public money are increasingly being taken by secretive special purpose authorities dominated by private sector interests. In some countries, of course, the city governments are corrupt and in those settings it is often desirable to introduce governance models in an effort to hold government to account.

The task of governing cities requires strong and accountable government and imaginative collaboration among diverse stakeholders. Our book focuses on governing cities in a global era because governing sits at the junction between government and governance. Local governments play a crucial role as leaders, as regulators, as integrators, and as conduits for the conversion of ideas into policy. Governance is at the centre of local capacity building - bringing private and non-profit partners squarely into the policy and service arena in partnerships that can foster dialogue between local stakeholders and deliver innovative solutions to societal needs. But governance in the absence of strong government can lead to urban breakdown. This is because government the elected, democratically accountable local state - is the only body that can ensure that different interests are fairly brought to the table and that decisions and actions clearly serve the broader public interest. A focus on governing spotlights the instrumental side of power in the city to formulate policy, to generate resources, and to implement and provide services and infrastructure to meet the needs of all who live in the city.

(1) The City Futures Conference was organised by the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs (CUPPA) at the University of Illinois at Chicago on behalf of the European Urban Research Association (EURA) and the Urban Affairs Association (UAA). Website for papers: www.uic.edu/cuppa/cityfutures

(2) Governing Cities in a Global Era (co-edited by Robin Hambleton and Jill Simone Gross, Palgrave £15.99 pb)

Robin Hambleton, who was Dean of CUPPA until September 2007, is now Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England