Devolved Governance: Enhancing the Resilience of Cities
Devolving urban governance requires bestowing powers related to the planning, financing, and management of urban areas to local governments, granting them the autonomy to respond to critical policy areas such as the need for sustainable infrastructure and the provision of quality social housing. Governments must be prepared to face emerging challenges while creating cities that people aspire to live in, as the population of urban centers is set to increase by 2.5 billion people by 2050. Governing effectively requires a continuous process of negotiation and compromise over the allocation of resources and political power. Devolved helps cities take a better, more flexible approach to overcome context-specific challenges.
The pitfalls of centralized urban governance
In Singapore, the People’s Action Party have found success through centralized urban governance. Over the past sixty years, Singapore’s Housing Development Board has supplied state-led social housing with equal access to transport, education, and amenities. As a result, home ownership rates have soared from 29% in 1970 to 90% in recent years. Increased urban agglomeration resulting from the intertwining of housing, jobs, and infrastructure has provided people with economic opportunities and social equality, contributing greatly to Singapore’s prosperity. Centralized urban governance, however, impedes autonomy over the built environment.
In China, an insatiable appetite for real estate has accelerated the dispossession of land from rural communities, dispersing them across new cities in rehousing processes. Fractured communities are alienated by the vast scale of cities with no meaningful way of participating in the design of their surroundings. The relentless pace of urban development has forced governments to use city planning templates to swiftly construct cities, often leading to the destruction of traditional urban areas in favor of serried ranks of single-use tower blocks. This constructs an urban façade lacking the necessary vibrancy for an appealing city. An observation of new Chinese cities shows that night-time light emissions are a mere 8.8% of that in older, traditional urban centers. As a result, unpopulated “ghost cities” have appeared across China, where traffic lights blink meaninglessly in streets that are yet to welcome residents.
A case for devolved urban governance
Devolved urban governance equips cities with the flexibility to confront emerging challenges. In Malmö, Sweden, the devolution of powers removed layers of governmental bureaucracy in decision-making processes, enabling city officials to swiftly collaborate with architects and developers to bring about innovative and sustainable development. This has allowed city officials to combat climate change by establishing an eco-district combining sustainable planning, new building technologies, and a smarter infrastructure to create a self-sufficient and resilient city. By bridging the gap between private and public sector efforts to tackle climate change, Malmö was able to cut its carbon footprint, exceeding Sweden’s national target. The city’s comprehensive program of sustainable infrastructure includes 420 km of cycle paths, fifteen photovoltaic farms, and a waste incineration program that fuels 60% of Malmö’s heating network. Malmö is predicted to run on entirely renewable energy by 2030.
Whether local governments had the necessary power to set policy agendas defined how well cities responded to COVID-19. In Colombia, where the national government has devolved its decision-making powers, city officials were able to develop context-specific policies to solve the challenges of COVID-19. Bogotá’s mayor created 76 km of emergency bike lanes to facilitate the safe passage of essential workers, acting far quicker than the central government.
Devolved urban governance also allows communities to have greater agency over their surroundings. Tensions between centralized city planning and the right for communities to define urban spaces is best captured by a grassroots protest movement led by Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, which successfully defeated the attempt of city planner Robert Moses to construct a motorway through New York City’s Greenwich Village. Her assertion that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” has since been proven by an extensive body of literature and recognized by some central governments. For example, the United Kingdom’s National Planning Policy Framework requires developers to subject their proposals to public consultation and approval. In a progressive move, the United Kingdom’s Localism Act 2011 devolved decision-making power to local communities, setting up the legislative foundation to build small-scale projects without undertaking lengthy planning processes. Under this framework, cooperative developments based on sharing economies, in which possessions are shared to the benefit of all, have flourished.
LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) in Leeds is a cooperative development community founded by friends who share a similar life ethos, with a focus on resource conservation and mutuality. twenty houses, designed by all residents, and is made affordable through a mutual home ownership scheme where repayments are made relative to salary. Exemplary projects like LILAC show how devolution makes it possible for citizens to define their urban spaces to meet emerging challenges and exist alongside the cultural norm of home-centered individualism.
Recent advancements in technology offer an opportunity for individuals and communities to have greater agency over their environment. ChangeExplorer, a smart watch application, addresses barriers to participation in planning by providing a platform for citizens to communicate feedback on their urban surroundings. A city of the future should have the ability to identify, prioritize, and fulfil the changing needs of its citizens. and providing fiscal autonomy would support the adaptability and efficiency required to effectively manage the complexities of urban systems as urban populations continue to grow.
Photo by Rio Lecatompessy on Unsplash
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 Sarah Wray, “Bogotá expands bike lanes to curb coronavirus spread,” Smart Cities World, March 18, 2020, https://www.smartcitiesworld.net/news/news/bogota-expands-bike-lanes-overnight-to-curb-coronavirus-spread-5127.
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 Paul Chatterton, Low Impact Living: A Field Guide to Ecological, Affordable Community Building (Oxford: Routledge, 2015).
 Alexander Wilson, Mark Tewdwr-Jones, Rob Comber, “Urban planning, public participation and digital technology: App development as a method of generating citizen involvement in local planning processes,” Environment and Planning B: Urban Analytics and City Science 46, no. 2 (2019): 286-302.
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