The Role of Local Governments in Sustainable Urbanisation

By Sara Hoeflich De Duque

A key recommendation of the German Habitat Forum held in May 2016 in Berlin was that “cities need to be empowered as actors”. Urbanization not only implies geographical changes, but also a political change in order to manage growth. This is where local governments are most needed.

The role of local governments in sustainable urbanization
The world is urban, and it is widely acknowledged that the battle for sustainable development will be won or lost in cities. According to the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena in order to tackle the global urban challenge “[…] we will have to build a one million-person city per week with 10,000 dollars per family during the next 15 years. If we don’t solve this equation, (…) people (…) will come anyhow, but they will live in slums, favelas and informal settlements.”

An alternative to building new cities to face the urbanization phenomenon is to manage the growth of the existing cities. On the one hand, cities with higher incomes per capita do not only struggle with air pollution caused by the extensive use of private vehicles, but also with the creation of gated communities, shrinking populations, difficulties in the provision of adequate housing, and urban sprawl due to real estate speculation. On the other hand, cities without a robust economy often face problems associated with the increase of slum areas, informal labor, and water pollution, to name a few of their challenges.

In the following article, some of the local governments’ main functions, challenges and solutions related to the urbanization process will be reviewed. Globally, the mandates of local governments are rather similar. The following four mandates can be seen as a guideline for local governments to develop innovative sustainable practices.

1. The mandate to be a government
First of all, governments should commit to efficiency as well as to democracy; this starts with free and fair elections that hold a government accountable to its people. A local government is the public sphere closest to the people. Thus, they should involve citizens in decision-making and reach consensus in their communities, through i.e. participatory budgeting and participatory planning.
It is also vital that local governments reach out to disadvantaged population groups and deliver them equitable services as well as establish new ways of communication and information exchange.
Throughout these processes, governments should use open data to make city budgets on, for example, social services, land registries, and procurement policies more transparent.

2. The mandate of providing public services
In relation to the decentralization process, local governments are increasingly providing basic services, even if they are facing more and more financial challenges. They are the public sphere working with slum-dwellers and neighborhoods to upgrade their living conditions in developing countries. The services provided in this context include, among others, water, sanitation, mobility, electricity and social services like access to health care and education.
To improve air quality, investment in public transport and green mobility is rising on a global scale. The urban mobility paradigm is shifting away from petrol-dependent systems and local governments play a crucial role in implementing alternative solutions to tackle the urban mobility challenges cities are currently facing.

Local policies to promote public transport, walking or cycling through adequate infrastructure investments and measures to disincentive the use of private vehicles through taxes, tolls and parking fees, inspire more and more cities to shift to low-carbon models.
Similar policies can be adapted to protect the environment, for instance through sustainable waste and water management. Recycling is not only an opportunity for cities to save resources, but also to increase income sources for people engaged in the recycling process and enlarge the value chain. Furthermore, municipalities can favor cooperatives of the urban poor or local communities to manage recycling processes in order to support the livelihoods of informal workers.

3. The mandate of planning, managing land and public buildings
To tackle urban segregation, local governments can ensure quality green and public spaces for all. Gated communities do not provide any public space. Social inclusion is a territorial policy, and infrastructure provision is a key competence for this. Sport facilities, safe and accessible spaces for girls and women, spaces for children and the young population, parks and green spaces should be part of the city and all neighborhoods, without restrictions.
Furthermore, policies to promote mixed-use residences designed for people with different incomes as well as working spaces do not only reduce spatial segregation but also have positive long-term effects for local economic development and productivity.

At the same time, local governments can monitor and regulate land use to make cities more resilient to climate change and disasters. The protection of rivers and lakes and the promotion of alternative energy sources are just as important as preventive educational measures, such as emergency plans. However, these measures are only effective in cooperation with communities and thus with the involvement of the local government that is responsible for them.

4. The mandate of procurement and Local Economic Development
Public actors, and ideally also private actors, are necessary to preserve urban cultural assets for future generations. Sights of local identity such as heritage buildings, libraries, museums, local media and design are not only important to foster communities and education, but are also relevant assets for cities to be attractive and unique.

Economic cycles can foster local relations between urban and rural territories. The consumption of cities is a dimension that can support production and work, as exemplified by regional direct marketing. Municipalities’ procurement can favor local and small enterprises, help farmers to get access to food markets and support local industrial clusters to compete for municipal contracts.

The way forward
In the international arena, good progress has been made in the recent agreement on the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, and more UN agencies such as UN Habitat, the UN Development Programme, or the International Labor Organization have been recognizing the role of local governments and committed to “localize the SDGs” together with UCLG. We are close to the Habitat III conference that will bring attention to cities and UCLG is very engaged in building a New Urban Agenda that will be relevant for local governments.

The Sustainable Development Goals, in particular goal 11 SUSTAINABLE CITIES AND COMMUNITIES  and 16 PEACE, JUSTICE AND STRONG INSTITUTIONS  are important milestones in the recognition of the role of local and regional governments in sustainable urbanization.

However, the technical and financial capacities of many local governments are insufficient to fulfill the mandates mentioned above. That is why, most importantly, local and regional leaders and their associations seek strong partnerships with national governments to create enabling legal frameworks and ensure adequate resources to fulfill their role in achieving the Global Goals. The expertise of the German Development Cooperation on decentralization and the support to local government associations is very relevant in this aspect. The associations are an important link between the global goals and local leaders that will need support, attention and means to enable sustainable urbanization.

Sara Hoeflich de Duque

Sara Hoeflich de Duque

Programme Manager at UCLG
Sara Hoeflich works for UCLG, United Cities and Local Governments, the voice and network of cities and regions. She is in charge of the UCLG portfolio on decentralized cooperation and city to city learning (director cooperation). She started working at United Cities and Local Government in 2006, after almost 10 years joining German Development Cooperation in Indonesia and Colombia -in the field of urban planning and management - and after being active in several German urban design projects and engaging in development NGO.
Sara Hoeflich de Duque

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