Creating an enabling environment for sustainable cities

By William Cobbett

Introduction
The adoption of the post-2015 development framework: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in September 2015 has been hailed for its unprecedented scope and ambition. The Sustainable Development Goals need to be read not as discrete menus serving different interest groups, but as an integrated and highly interdependent global compact that will require far more fundamental changes to current life-styles and policies than previous international agendas.

The urban community has often extolled many of the benefits of cities, through which much of human history has run – the modernizing nature of city life, and economic and social benefits of human agglomeration, as well as the extraordinary benefits of density and connections within and between cities. The belief that cities are the drivers of economic growth has been asserted so many times that it is almost a mantra.

This article suggests that, while welcoming the emergence of the third tier of government onto the international development agenda, there is nothing automatic nor assured about cities achieving these development goals and that, further, in many countries cities are struggling to satisfy even the basic needs of their population.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to propose a more sober and objective assessment of the essential conditions that will need to be in place if cities are to properly perform the functions anticipated in the SDGs, and contribute meaningfully to the larger, global goals.

Indeed, for many national governments the principal challenge will be the completion of an integrated national policy framework, which both recognises and progressively assigns roles, resources and responsibilities to the country’s towns and cities. This is a medium to long-term exercise, which may need the entire period of the SDG framework to be completed.

In our view, there are three major areas that require detailed attention to policy and practice in order to create the conditions under which a national system of cities can thrive and contribute to the overall social and economic stability of the country. These are:

1. The constitutional, legal and fiscal framework
At the centre of the national policy framework, clarity between the roles and responsibilities of different levels of government is essential, and should facilitate coordination – whether in federal or unitary state systems. Whether constitutionally protected or not, local government functions should be very clearly articulated and protected in national and/or state legislation, ensuring the avoidance of institutional duplication or gaps.

A national system of cities will require fiscal and financial policies that support sustainable and predictable fiscal transfers, clarify which level of government is responsible for specific revenues and expenditures, and allow suitably endowed cities to maximise own revenue-generation, and mobilize domestic public and private sector investment. In particular, the national fiscal framework should:

  1. provide an equitable, stable and predictable system of intergovernmental fiscal transfers;
  2. support the development of effective municipal finance and tax systems. This may include ways to expand the revenue base of local authorities and attract private sector investment;
  3. provide supporting measures and provisions for responsible borrowing and debt management by cities, where appropriate; and
  4. finally, it should support increased transparency and accountability of local government finance.

2. City Governance
Responsibility for the second set of conditions essential for successful cities largely lies at the city level, and primarily within the purview of the local government itself. Too many local governments report upwards to regional and national governments, rather than to their own citizens.

The running of a city is a complex challenge, requiring multi-disciplinary, long-term approaches, the mobilization of major capital investment, the management of assets and the reliable provision of a range of services. The central challenge of urban governance is the creation of a partnership between the local government, the citizens and community organisations as well as the private sectors active in the city. Ideally, such a social compact operates within the framework of a shared vision for the city, one which transcends sectional interests and short-term political cycles.

Without covering all of the complexities, our experience points to consistent challenges and failures in a number of fields, including: inadequate city data for proper planning; infrastructural backlogs and lack of formal/reliable service provision, especially for the urban poor; insufficient attention to the specific needs of women; poor maintenance of capital assets; a poor regulatory environment for private sector investment; and an unaccountable and unresponsive administration. This can be experienced as the lack of a focus on the whole city, and on all citizens.

3. Human resources of local governments
The final constraint consistently receives the least national and international attention, yet is possibly the most significant structural obstacle to achieving the promise of sustainable cities. Given the enormous responsibilities that local government administrations need to manage, and the multisectoral challenges that most cities face, it follows that city administrations will need staff establishments with both the capacity and the different skills to run the city.

Our evidence suggests that the reverse is generally the case – local administrations are generally significantly under-resourced, and unable to attract and/or retain the human capacities that are essential for the smooth running of a complicated enterprise.

This should be viewed as a long-term, structural challenge, one that requires a response far beyond the traditional capacity-building exercises sometimes offered by development agencies. On the contrary, it will require, inter alia, a comprehensive and objective assessment of the staffing requirements for different sized cities; an assessment of the actual terms and conditions offered to prospective city administration staff and managers (including their career prospects); and an examination of the training available to such staff, including an examination of national university, professional and further education institutions and curricula.

In essence, this is a call for the professionalization of the local government civil service, and for a career in local government to be an attractive – even a preferred – choice for graduates and professionals.

4. Summary
There is often a very simple correlation between the development needs of a country, and the weakness of sub-national levels of government, including local government. Experience shows that national government both attracts and retains power and resources, while sub-national governments are seen as inferior and, very often, are treated as little more than administrative arms of a higher tier of government.

Achieving the promise of the SDGs will require entirely different approaches to the key challenges highlighted above in order to establish new styles of national governance, more equitable patterns of economic growth and universal human development. This paper outlines some of the key challenges that, if systematically addressed, would make a decisive contribution to national transformation.

William Cobbett

Director || Direktor at Cities Alliance
William Cobbett ist Direktor der Cities Alliance. Bevor er dort 2001 anfing, arbeitete er beim Programm für menschliche Siedlungen der Vereinten Nationen in Nairobi. Zuvor hatte William Cobbett den Posten des Nationalen Koordinators der Abteilung für kommunale und regionale Verwaltung sowie Wohnungswesen in Südafrika inne, und war Direktor für Wohnungswesen in Kapstadt.
William Cobbett

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