Seven Transformations for More Equitable and Sustainable Cities

Image: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

Image: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

World Resources Report

Chapter 12

Governance and Institutions – Creating Diverse Coalitions and Alignment

Cities need to transform governance to work for, with, and by the people. Diverse coalitions of public, private, grassroots, and civil society organizations can galvanize political action around a shared vision and achieve lasting change when empowered by coherent policies.


12.1 What Must Change and Why

Multiple sectors, actors, and systems work against each other

Cities and urban areas do not exist in isolation but rather in a spatial and political context comprising national and subnational actors at the state, regional, provincial, and local community levels. Cities often lack the power, jurisdiction, or resources to make needed changes within their administrative areas or the regions where citizens live, work, and interact with nature. Metropolitan or regional agencies may have control over networked infrastructure such as transport, energy, water, and sanitation. These sectoral agencies and levels of government must be aligned so that they can move together in a consistent, coordinated way, in the same direction, to avoid duplicating efforts, stymying one another, or working at cross purposes.

Without aligning goals and policies towards a shared vision for a city, it is difficult to achieve the consensus and momentum needed for durable change. Collaborative decision-making can expand policymakers’ horizons while revealing obstacles and opportunities. Our research found that policy alignment and collaboration is necessary both horizontally—across sectoral agencies and city jurisdictions—and vertically—between local, regional, and national levels of government. It also showed how siloed sectoral thinking and piecemeal interventions that are not conceived holistically may address the symptoms but not the root cause of problems.

The absence of vertical collaboration and policy alignment across different scales of government can lead to national policies clashing with or neglecting urban needs and priorities. Providing urban services such as good-quality housing, transport, energy, water, and sanitation often depends on metropolitan or regional agencies planning within national policy and financing frameworks. Many struggling and emerging cities rely on their national and state government for policy, regulatory, and technical support as well as for large portions of their budgets. National and regional governments depend on cities too. Actions taken by cities have the potential to generate both positive and negative economic and environmental impacts that reach far beyond their boundaries, with repercussions for whole regions and nations.

The absence of horizontal collaboration and the lack of integrated planning across sectors and spatial jurisdictions can create multiple challenges for cities and their ecosystems. Regional challenges—including flooding and water scarcity, air pollution, land degradation, and the loss of biodiversity, wetlands, and forests—transcend city boundaries but can have critical implications for a city’s prosperity and quality of life. Urban infrastructure networks physically span multiple jurisdictions, and a city’s labor market and economy can encompass smaller towns and cities on its periphery.

Urban spatial planning for land and services must therefore consider not just the city itself but also the surrounding areas where settlements and populations are expanding (see Box 16). These may fall under the jurisdiction of regional, state, or even rural agencies. Land development patterns—the ways cities are pushing outward—must be considered in planning core services to avoid spatial inequalities and gaps in access. This requires collaboration, which can be challenging because local governments in adjacent jurisdictions may lack the technical awareness, incentives, resources, or policy mandates to collaborate. It requires a coherent policy framework and vision at higher levels of government.

Box 16 | Rapidly expanding cities invariably face governance challenges

Figure B16.1 shows the governance challenge that arises in a growing city such as Bengaluru, India, when rapidly urbanizing areas on the city’s periphery fall outside the jurisdiction of key service-providing agencies. The mismatch of jurisdictions inevitably results in gaps in access to one or more key services for people living in these locations, and those with lower incomes are most affected. Many lack access to basic services, including piped water and sewer connections (see also Chapter 3, Figure 11).

Figure B16.1 | In Bengaluru, India, the jurisdictions of key service-providing agencies do not align

Source: Mahendra and Seto, 2019, contributed by WRI India.

Lack of collaboration across jurisdictions hinders service provision

Coordination across geographies, levels of government, various sectors, and over time is difficult logistically as well as politically. Administrative challenges multiply when both populations and urban footprints are growing, and when the realities of life on the ground, including control or authority over natural resources such as watersheds, do not correspond to older jurisdictions, institutional structures, and processes.454 Box 16 presents the example of rapidly-growing Bengaluru, where the jurisdictions of different service provision agencies do not match. Rigid and hierarchical bureaucracies prevent effective communication and can undermine trust, political will, and consistency. Such mismatches and lack of coordination can lead to cases like that of Nairobi, where the water and sanitation utility installed water taps that were removed five years later by the roads authority wanting to build new roads.455

Collaboration takes time and requires the political will to work towards a common vision and devise a plan to achieve it. Existing incentives can tilt public sector agencies more towards competition than collaboration. Not collaborating is far easier and can be politically motivated. Political differences between national and city governments can prevent cities from exercising the authority they need or accessing the credit they require from international markets or donors to build needed infrastructure.456 Dakar has been struggling financially, in part because of insufficient revenue transfers from the Senegalese government. The national government blocked the city from accessing credit offered by the U.S. Agency for International Development. It cited fears that Dakar’s weak governance and inadequate revenue collection would force the national treasury to repay the money. However, political differences between the national government and a city government led by the opposition party likely played a key role.457

Working at cross-purposes or in silos, without a shared vision or long-term planning horizon, carries significant costs. The Towards a More Equal City Kampala case study illustrates this. Project-based thinking—where different actors implement narrowly conceived and often short-lived projects to solve a problem—is common in the delivery of urban services. It fragments resources and responsibility between multiple actors working towards inconsistent objectives and can lead to waste through inefficiency and duplication of effort. Sometimes, for example, cities need to perform multiple feasibility studies for the same large infrastructure projects to comply with the unique rules and paperwork requirements of various funders and partners. Urban management projects in Kampala were not coordinated. Each project and donor focused on its own goals rather than participating in an integrated plan to improve the lives of citizens by responding to their needs. Donor priorities would change, pilot projects were not supported beyond the short term, and longer-term strategic thinking was absent. Moreover, the time frame for evaluating success was short, further minimizing the chances for long-term collaborative approaches. Short-term and piecemeal investments failed to achieve lasting change with wider benefits.

Voices: Edgar Pieterse on more responsive governance in African cities

12.2 Priority Actions

A. Form and support coalitions of local actors with access to decision-making

To build durable change that can withstand the vicissitudes of political cycles and changing administrations, cities need lasting coalitions of stakeholder groups. A shared vision across these groups can help drive transformative change, minimize backsliding, and create bridges across time, political cycles, and leaders. These