National Urban Policies: a policy lever to foster a New Urban Agenda? – Part I

By Rene Peter Hohmann

National Urban Policies are recognised as an effective and necessary tool to achieve sustainable and inclusive urban development as envisioned in the New Urban Agenda. However, it is still unclear what constitutes a National Urban Policy and how such a policy could help catalyse the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. In order to bring some light into these discussions, Rene Peter Hohmann reviews the current body of academic literature as well as policy assessments to analyse and categorise a sample of 19 countries with an explicit National Urban Policy in place.

During the Habitat III preparation process, a report on the progress of the Habitat II legacies and new emerging challenges to be considered in a New Urban Agenda (NUA) already suggested that “there is need for policies aimed at a more balanced distribution of urban growth. Such national urban policies could promote the growth of intermediate-size cities, with a view to avoiding excessive concentration in just one or two very large urban agglomerations and to reducing the negative environmental impacts often associated with large and rapidly growing urban agglomerations”1.

As a result, the implementation of the agreement through National Urban Policies (NUPs) became one of the key recommendations to Member States during the Habitat III preparation process. Unsurprisingly, the NUA which was eventually adopted in Quito (Ecuador) in October 2016 explicitly encourages Member States “…to enhance the ability of Governments to effectively implement national urban policies…”2.

Despite the clear consensus among Member States represented at the Habitat III conference to foster NUPs as a key vehicle to achieve its commitments, it remains yet unclear what constitutes a NUP and how such a policy could help catalyse the New Urban Agenda in all 193 member states of the United Nations.

Defining National Urban Policies
The Habitat III outcome document praises the value of National Urban Policies as a tool for sustainable urban development. In contrast, the literature on what is coined today as National Urban Policies is limited.

Yet, for the purposes of this article and to better contextualise these policies in regard to the New Urban Agenda, a National Urban Policy is understood “as a coherent set of decisions derived through a deliberate government-led process of coordinating and rallying various actors for a common vision and goal that will promote more transformative, productive, inclusive and resilient urban development for the long term.”3

Typologies of National Urban Policies
A look into the legacy of national programmes in Western Europe, such as in the United Kingdom, reminds us of the diversity and particular historical circumstances in which these political ambitions of national governments to the benefit of cities had been formulated: from programmes on urban reconstruction after the 2nd World War to urban renewal in the 1960 and 1970s, from urban regeneration in the 1980s to urban renaissance in the 1990s4.

In rapidly urbanising countries, traces of intentions to formulate NUPs can be found in approaches of the 1990s to respond to urbanisation with a particular focus on population distribution aimed at “measures to strengthen urban-rural economic interactions and to improve rural infrastructure so as to increase productivity”5. Despite these intentional statements, it was noted 20 years later that “very few African states have explicit policies to deal with urbanisation and intra-urban development challenges”6.

However, this variety in the political ambitions already hints to the fact that NUPs may need to be best understood on a continuum embracing several sectors and policy priorities. Applying an institutional lens on NUPs, we can consider eight typologies :

  • Public-led, place-based, social.
  • Public-led, people-based, social.
  • Public-led, place-based, economic.
  • Public-led, people-based, economic.
  • Private-led, place-based, social.
  • Private-led, people-based, social.
  • Private-led, place-based, economic.
  • Private-led, people-based, economic

These eight typologies stem from a characterisation of the policy initiatives along three policy continua: Public-led versus private-led policies; people- versus place-based as well as social versus economic oriented policy initiatives.

Public-led versus private-led policy initiatives are differentiated according to the policy’s basic intention to support state structures, such as ministries and/or local authorities, or the private sector to be the key delivery agent and initiator of the intended development interventions.

Whether a policy is targeted at places, such as for Special Economic Zones or deprived urban areas, or people, such as inhabitants facing a variety of disadvantages, can be considered as a second policy continua.

Finally, NUPs may be more focused on interventions to increase social capital of targeted beneficiaries, such as community-based interventions at neighbourhood level, or to build up economic assets to foster productivity, such as Local Economic Development Strategies.

This framework can be used to cluster and map NUPs according to their policy content allowing not only to reflect the diversity and mixtures of policy intentions at the national level, it also directs the necessary attention to the multiple and sometimes inherently contradictory intentions that national governments may pursue under an umbrella of a NUP.

In Part II of this blog post, these existing typologies will be applied to a sample of countries that already have been formulating and implementing National Urban Policies. This will help to better understand the different characters of NUPs and their potential to become a policy lever for the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Read Part II here.

Rene Peter Hohmann

Senior Urban Specialist at Cities Alliance
Dr. Rene Peter Hohmann works as a Senior Urban Specialist at the Cities Alliance (CA) Secretariat, hosted by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS). He is managing a Joint Work Programme on Promoting Equitable Economic Growth in Cities, chaired by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). Between 2004-2013, he worked for the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Technische Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH in the fields of decentralisation and urban governance. Based on his own field research, Policy Press published his book analysing and comparing the impact of national urban initiatives for deprived urban areas in England and Germany in 2013. He holds a PhD in Geography from King’s College London as well as a Master’s degree in Social Sciences from Humboldt University Berlin.
Rene Peter Hohmann
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