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Cities Today & Tomorrow: Bigger Challenges before the Planners

Dr BK Mukhopadhyay

A noted management economist and an international commentator on business and economic affairs. He may be reached at m.bibhas@gmail.com

At the very outset let us just have a look at the World Economic Forum observation: “The world is experiencing a historically unprecedented transition from predominantly rural to urban living. In 1950, one-third of the world’s population lived in cities; today the number has already reached more than one-half, and in 2050 city dwellers are expected to account for more than two-thirds of the world’s population. This rapid rise will mainly take place in developing countries. Africa and Asia – both still comparatively less urbanized than other regions – will be the fastest urbanizing regions with the urban population projected to reach 56 percent in Africa and 64 percent in Asia by 2050 (currently at 40 percent and 48 percent, respectively).These developments imply an unprecedented shift of the urban world away from the north-west to the south and east.”

Migration from rural to urban areas is often trigged by repeated natural disasters and lack of livelihood opportunities. However, at the same time many mega-cities are built in areas where there is a heightened risk for earthquakes, floods, landslides and other natural disasters.

Many people living in large urban centres such as slums lack access to improved water, sanitation, security of tenure, durability of housing, and sufficient living area. This lack of access to basic services and livelihood leads to increasing risk of discrimination, social exclusion and ultimately violence
Naturally, the role of urban governance comes into play in a bigger way. UN-Habitat defines urban governance as follows: “The sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, plan and manage the common affairs of the city. It is a continuing process through which conflicting or diverse interests may be accommodated and cooperative action can be taken. It includes formal institutions as well as informal arrangements and the social capital of citizens.”

A city that plans not only projects the future from past trends, it also brings the public, private and third sectors together with communities to build a collectively preferred future.

To continuously better the scenario planning has to continue keeping in view: promoting sustainable development, achieving integrated planning, Integrating plans with budgets, plan with partners and stakeholders, promoting market responsiveness, ensuring access to land and developing appropriate planning tools, be pro-poor and inclusive, recognizing cultural diversity.

The successful implementation of the multi-government agenda requires adequate numbers of trained planners – the current numbers are low and many planning educational institutions lack the resources to prepare the next generation of practitioners effectively. In fact schools that meaningfully draw together the broad interdisciplinary knowledge needed are rare. Professional networks lack sufficient resources to adequately network and share across borders. Even where there is sharing, there is no clear understanding of which concepts and practices cross borders effectively and which should be left where they originate.

It has been rightly viewed [wcr.unhabitat.org]: regulatory regimes often constrain what is possible from planning besides posing obstacles to builders, developers and others. In the same vein, separation of planning from budgeting frequently stands in the way of effective plan implementation. The vagaries of politics (including political violence and resultant refugee migration) too may render planning forecasts irrelevant. Disruptions in urban systems resulting from disasters, environmental hazards, epidemics, war, civic strife, and climate change are widespread causes of planning failure and are predicted to become more prevalent. To protect against such natural and human-caused stresses, plans will need to anticipate uncertainty and risk, test alternatives against variations, and seek to adopt strategies that respond well to departures from forecasts.

Forces of social exclusion and growing inequalities undermine the adoption of current inclusionary planning processes in many nations. Political commitment to inclusion is vital for planning success, as is better understanding of the tools in participatory planning. The cultural diversity often found in cities is itself a tool toward building awareness of the need for inclusion, yet some of the starkest instances of exclusion are found in cities. Participatory governance is the starting point for inclusion, but open acknowledgement of inequities, reconsideration of legal and governance barriers to inclusion, and access to information and accountability of planning systems are all important.

Clearly, quality housing and infrastructure are important to employment and economic development, of course, but so is human capital fostered through education that builds skills and health care that keeps workers on the job. Recent urban plans that integrate such economic development considerations with more traditional planning objectives provide a range of promising models. Economic development planning considerations include locational analyses that identify and seek to exploit economies of agglomeration and knowledge networks; land planning that identifies, lays infrastructure for, and reserves land suitable for certain industrial and commercial purposes; programmes to build the educational readiness and job training of the work force; and endogenous development arrangements to support investment in and nurturing of locally-based firms. Agglomeration economies are of prime importance as labour pools, resource availability and training resources are matched with industrial recruitment and industrial development efforts.

The WEF observations are worth mentioning here: saying yes to governance mechanism that would allow an effective link between what was being observed at the country and city levels and the alert mechanisms necessary to trigger an emergency response. Looking into the future for an adequate response across geographies, the existence of such a governance mechanism would: (i) allow collaboration between local and national governments, civil society and the private sector across borders; (ii) coordinate the surveillance, collection, sharing and analysis of infectious disease data in real time; (iii) incentivize the private sector to develop and scale up the production and distribution of affordable drugs, vaccines and diagnostics; (iv) establish a network of centres for research into microbial threats; and (v) promote international standards for best laboratory, regulatory and ethical practice.
The vulnerability of urban centres to pandemics points to the need for strong public-private coordination involving organizations beyond the traditional healthcare sector. The ability to mobilize a response from sectors as diverse as food production, telecommunications and corporate supply chains will determine how epidemics are fought in the future. Local, national and cross-border government agencies need to build bridges with all stakeholders and learn from what worked in the past to shape systems with the capacity to respond to pandemics and build the resilience to bounce back afterwards. Coordinating responses and developing global governance mechanisms are critical to contain future outbreaks, which will inevitably occur.

Obvious enough, cities and towns must respond to the changing needs of their populations. New schools, better parks and recreation centers, updated hospitals and medical centers, water infrastructures and improved highway and travel thruways are all integral aspects of a functioning society. With the development and implementation of each of these projects, there are concerns which must be considered in advance, while ensuring the safety of citizens, the needs of the growing populations and environmental matters.

About the author

Ankur Kalita

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