Metropolitan regions the ‘new normal’, study suggests

Report is meant as a handbook for local authorities and others in deciding which form of governance structure may work best for their region.
An old sign is seen in Oakland, California. Urbanization experts are increasingly warning that the future will be a metropolitan one and that policymakers need to make related preparations now. (Murray 9k/Flickr/cc)

The common image of the world’s trend of irrevocably quick urbanization is often one of bursting megacities, especially in developing countries. In fact, this pattern is one that is affecting all levels of human settlement, with villages growing into towns, towns growing into secondary cities, secondary cities merging into one another to form extensive corridors or vast metropolitan areas.

Not only is the image of the current and coming urbanization process overly focused on the megacity, many say, but so too is much of the world’s planning and prioritization around this process.

[See: Preparing for the great metropolitanization]

This year’s major rethink of global development priorities has brought with it a landmark new focus on urban areas and cities as a means in themselves to achieve anti-poverty and other development aims. This includes the watershed new cities-focused Sustainable Development Goal, the urban SDG, as well as the momentum picking up ahead of next year’s major cities summit, Habitat III.

Yet the extent of the attention that this new prioritization will bring to the urban tiers below the major cities — to the hyper-expanding secondary cities, for instance, or to the fiscal and governance complexities of metropolitan areas — remains up in the air.

That’s not to say that an increasing number of scholars and experts aren’t trying to change this tide and underscore the need to bring more thought and resources to bear on this extraordinarily complicated but, many suggest, ultimately more important facet of the urban discussion.

“Decentralization policies have on the whole failed,” Brian Roberts, an emeritus professor at the University of Canberra, said in Washington last week. “They have been successful politically, but when you come to look at decentralization in terms of investment and physical flows, we see quite substantial problems emerging that we need to address at a systems level.”

This week, Montréal is hosting a two-day summit on metropolitan governance, formally the second “thematic meeting” within the Habitat III process. Over the past two weeks, Habitat III organizers have also been hosting an online discussion on the topic.

[See: Habitat III e-discussion opens on metropolitan areas]

And now, the German government and UN-Habitat, the lead agency on the Habitat III conference, have published a major study aimed at helping both authorities and development groups decide what form of metropolitan governance may work best for their region. The report focuses in particular on setting up workable metropolitan-governance structures within the context of achieving sustainable development aims.

These will be increasingly important decisions, the analysts state, claiming that current urbanization trends make metropolitan regions “the new normal”.

“[E]ffective metropolitan governance is crucial for transformative development, considering social, political, economic and environmental impacts,” the study notes. “While the subsidiarity principle is still valid and valuable, some decisions are most effectively implemented at a metropolitan level that follows the functional area.”

Subsidiarity is the idea that the most effective form of governance is that which is closest to the people. While that has become a truism in some circles, these findings offer additional nuance.

“Climate change, natural disasters or economic development do not stop at administrative boundaries, hence joint action needs to be taken,” the study continues. “Infrastructure needs can be better solved through joint forces and coordination between administrations and different stakeholders.”

Global forums

At base, the forces that lead to the consolidation of metropolitan regions are some of the same that bring people and organizations together in a variety of other spheres: by banding together, cities are able to increase efficiency through shared administration and services, while still competing in other traditional realms.

[See: Charting the metropolitan century]

While this makes sense on paper, the complexities of working out a well-functioning metropolitan area remain significant. Hence, the new study calls for initial decision on governance structure as a prerequisite for any broader process.

Perhaps most interesting in this regard is a series of short case studies offered in one of the report’s annexes. Breaking down dozens of metropolitan areas across the globe into five types of governance structure, the listing includes brief chronologies on the processes that many of these areas undertook to arrive at their current set-up.

The authors also urge the international community to take up the issue of metropolitan governance at the global level, stating that Habitat III offers “the most immediate opportunity” to do so. The current conversation around climate change, in particular the upcoming COP 21 climate talks, is also a potentially lucrative opening for such a conversation.

Development groups can “stimulate” discussions on metropolitan governance in these forums by focusing on multiple issues, the report recommends, including “service delivery efficiency, regional equity, and environmental protection and climate change mitigation and adaptation”.

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