KeywordsUrban Growth Agglomeration Economy Urban Policy Urban Place Urban Problem
Urban policy refers to the cluster of policies that are aimed at influencing the development of urban areas and urban lives. It could be fragmented and diverse in practice due to the fragility of social needs and political institution.
Urban policy is a broad category of policies tackling public problems in urban areas. In the USA, the understanding of “urban area” has been evolving as being reflected in the US Census Bureau’s definitions in decennial censuses. For the 2010 Census, “urban(ized) area” is defined as “a statistical geographic entity consisting of a densely settled core” and “contiguous qualifying territory that together have a minimum population of at least 50,000 persons” (p. 15). However, the US Census also gives a more general identification of “urban” as the “densely developed territory, encompassing residential, commercial, and other nonresidential urban land uses within which social and economic interactions occur” (US Census 2010, p. 15). Today, more than half of the world’s population are living in urban areas. With the rapid development of urban settlements around the world, it is projected that 70 % of the world population will be living in cities by 2050 (UN-Habitat 2014).
The global process of urbanization, which is about the spatial concentration and growth of the urban population, has presented important opportunities as well as major challenges to many countries. We could list a series of urban problems ranging from distressed public housing to poor transportation, from public health crises to inequitable urban education, and from high crime rate to concentration of poverty; and the list continues. To address these problems, governments of different levels have developed policies and programs to accommodate and manage the process of urbanization in their respective countries. Due to its urban context, history, culture, and other features, each country’s urbanization process is different, with varying goals and unique challenges.
There is little shared understanding about what constitute urban policy. The discussion of urban policy has been covering numerous initiatives and programs to create opportunities and welfare outcomes in urban setting (Cochrane 2007a). Because of the complex nature of the urban problems to which urban policies are expected be applied, there is hardly one urban policy that fits all scenarios. However, these ambiguities and inconsistencies give urban policy its importance, as well as reflect the critical role of the cities in social and economic development (Cochrane 2007b). This article explores the definitions and scopes of urban policy, outlines typology of urban policy, and addresses its current trend and challenges, as well as discusses its future development.
A Coherent Urban Policy?
Urban policy evolves along with the urban development process around the globe. The definition of urban policy is elusive in part because it appears so self-explanatory. It is a cluster of policies that are aimed at influencing the development of urban areas and the lives of those living in urban areas (Cochrane 2007b). Many public and social policies directly affect urban areas (such as housing, transportation, and education), but not all of them are labeled as “urban.” What is missing is a clear cut or simple definition that helps determine what makes urban policy “urban” or the nature of urban policy that distinguishes it from other policies.
There is hardly a widely adopted definition of urban policy, “at least in Western society, a chaotic conception” (Atkinson and Moon 1994, p. 20). The content and scope of urban policy vary across the countries at different developmental stages. In the Western world, the birth of urban policy has been located in Johnson’s declaration of “War on Poverty” and his promise of a “Great Society” (Cochrane 2007a; Ross and Levine 2012). It marks the first time in American history that large-scale federal policies are created specifically for urban areas. Followed by that was Carter’s proposal of “New Partnership to Preserve America’s Communities” which targeted local communities with financial assistance and job creation. Carter was the first, and the last, president to propose a coherent, explicit national urban policy in the USA. His pledge has smashed against a constituent-protectionist congress (Ross and Levine 2012).
Unfortunately, the development of urban policy from these early attempts did not take a continuing learning process with a clear and consistent set of aims and practices. If we define urban policy as nation-state’s self-conscious intervention into urban lives and spaces, it could be fragmented and diverse in practice due to the fragility of social needs and political institution. While postindustrial countries, such as in the USA and UK, are searching for approaches of coherent national urban policy, decision-makers in China are dealing with social equity issues in the rapid process of urbanization. Meanwhile, much attention has been paid on lifting peoples up from slums in many regions in Africa and South Asia.
The complexity of existing social and political arrangement makes it almost impossible to find a universal definition of a coherent urban policy. It makes more sense to understand “the process by which the urban policy develops and defines itself in practice” (Cochrane 2007a, p. 2). In essence, discussions should start with identifying the urban problems and issues that deserve resource inputs and policy interventions.
The social construction of “urban deprivation” is important for understanding these urban problems and issues. “Urban deprivation” refers to a social problem in urban area which requires policy intervention. Scholars have criticized the “muddling thinking” with regard to “urban deprivation” which in decision-makers’ ideas is an umbrella of causally related social issues and problems (Cochrane 2007a; Edwards and Batley 1978). In practice, the urban policy could be any policy intervention for those problems with “urban label”, such as delinquency, poverty, and unemployment.
Another distinctive feature shared by various urban policies is that they have had “a territorial or area focus” (Cochrane 2007a, p. 3). Urban policy has been and will continue to be preoccupied with “spatial targeting” (Burton 1997, p. 430). By spatial targeting, an urban policy focuses on spatially delimited (urban) areas or the groups of people associated with these areas. For policy makers, the value of the spatial identification of urban policy is that it can be used to isolate and symbolize particular clusters of problems and to apply specific interventions to these clusters. However, this approach of urban policy identification has also been criticized for its simplicity. Cox (2001) warns that we need to use the term “urban” with great caution. It can be just another spatial category (similar to “region,” “rural,” “local,” and “global”) being used to “carve up the world” without substantial distinctions (Cox 2001, p. 761).
The questions remain, are we able to define a coherent urban policy? And is it necessary to have a coherent urban policy? There are no simple answers to these questions. Just as Downs (1999) criticizes, there is not a single formal strategic decision-maker in US urban policy. Instead, current practice of urban policy has resulted almost entirely from “a combination of market forces plus political policies aimed at goals other than how metropolitan economies ought to develop” (p. 15). No matter what scale and emphasis a particular urban policy initiative has, we define it as “urban” as its purpose is primarily improving physical and economic conditions within specific areas and therefore ameliorating the quality of life and opportunities of advancement (Burton 1997).
Types of Urban Policy
Regardless of the controversy of defining a coherent urban policy, most discussions of urban policy seem to have no problem to go from there and identify the major types of urban policy. Over the years, urban experts have suggested a number of typologies based on the normative ideas by which urban policies are initially designed. They may take a variety of perspectives and criteria, but most of the typologies suggest the distinction between policies focusing on economic development and those for others.
Urban policy is usually a collaboration of national and urban governments. In terms of economic development, the national and urban interests are not always consistent (Hanson 1983). The tension intensifies when the growth rates are low or negative. In particular, when some regions are growing and others are declining, urban interests may be conflicting with one another, as well as with the national interests. In this case, Hanson (1983) believes national urban policy should encourage the adjustments in economic structure and meanwhile stabilize the most adversely impacted urban economies and societies. Therefore, most of the urban policies are located in these two categories: (1) those that encourage economic development and (2) those that provide stable environment for those areas and people left behind (Hanson 1983).
A spectrum of economic development models, from pure free market to heavy central planning, has been applied to urban places round the globe. Leaving the future of urban areas entirely to the market will jeopardize social equity and other profound values of urban society, while the centrally planned economy tends to ignore the principle of market as a device to allocate resources efficiently. Therefore, the best approach is to craft urban policy in a way to understand and reinforce the market. Policies should be able to “provide reasonable options for dealing with economic transformation” (Hanson 1983, p. 172).
Many have criticized the economic dominance of urban policy (Hanson 1983; Lake 2005). According to Lake (2005), the predominant influence of the historical context to current US national urban policy is the subordination of urban and social policy to the needs of economy. The economic dominance is an ideological position with far-reaching consequences for urban policy. The government’s commitment to urban policy subordinates to its concern with economic development, as being reflected in its obsession with tracking economic indicators such as the unemployment rate. Instead of defining policy goals based on the social needs of urban populations and places, government’s attention is limited to those urban priorities that are compatible with the needs of growing and stabilizing the economy. The most recent manifestation of the economic dominance, as Lake (2005) argues, is the financialization of urban policy. The financialization of urban policy entails the redesign and implementation of urban policy as a financial instrument which is governed by the needs of a finance-based economy, rather than the social or urban problems that need to be addressed.
Despite the critiques of economic dominance, studies have noticed the shifting of urban policy strategies and patterns within the economic focus and beyond. Ward (2014) observes that the strategies of urban policy have been transformed from collective consumption to economic development. Collective consumption strategies tend to emphasize inward investment, physical regeneration, and residential gentrification in urban places (Cox and Jonas 1993). Economic development strategies are more about holistic programs and initiatives to promote urban development, including those of education, health, social services, and transportation (Ward 2014). By examining the political logic and evolutionary path of US urban policies, Kantor (2013) illustrates that urban policy has “two faces”: social and developmental. Each of them follows quite different political dynamics within specific policy boundaries, and developmental face does not necessarily overshadow the social face (Kantor 2013). The social face refers to the urban initiatives and programs that are perceived as essentially redistributive in its social impact and are addressing social inequalities associated with the urban system. In contrast, the developmental face of urban policy largely concerns policies and programs that impact the growth and economic competitiveness of business and population comprising the urban system. It is highly pragmatic and politically stable and is firmly rooted in sustained public sector intervention. Kantor (2013) believes this dual reality fundamentally shapes the context of initiating new directions in urban policy. Although in history the support to the developmental face appeared more resilient, significant shifts in urban policy are now at play.
While the economic versus social dimension has received most of the research attentions on urban policy typology, even more systematic approach has been taken to include other significant dimensions of urban policy, including public versus private and people versus place (Holland 2015). Drawn from American context, Holland (2015) uses these dimensions as the key criteria that categorize the strategies behind national urban policy development. The measurements of these criteria are the intended outcomes and the historical results of implementing an urban initiative or program.
The first dimension of criteria echoes the previous works on economic versus social in the design of urban policy. In Holland’s (2015) definitions, an urban policy is “economic driven” if it generates or reduces income; and it is “social driven” if it reflects the creation or destruction of community institutions. However, one should also recognize the hybrid nature of this parameter. In his illustration, the expansion of childcare for working parents creates both economic (generating income for the parents) and social (creating a new community institution) outcomes.
For the public versus private dimension, the criteria can be generally defined as to whether it is a public or private initiative. In the public initiative, the government uses public resources to initiate a proposed set of programs to stimulate and leverage private investment. In contrast, in the private initiative, the private sector makes the first move to intervene in the urban places with the expectation of profit maximization in the proposed action (Savas 1983). However, due to the mixed economy in the USA, there is hardly any “pure” free market or government action in urban investments.
The last dimension is the people versus place which is likely the most traditional contention in urban policy. People-oriented strategies include those initiatives that seek to develop human capital, increase household resources, or support entrepreneurial activities and self-employment. Rather than targeting directly urban population, place-oriented policies include those programs which have a fixed or location-centric focus. The focuses of these programs can be to improve the level and quality of public infrastructure, to enlarge the supply and availability of affordable housing, or to build new community facilities (Holland 2015). Despite of its wide adoption, the “people versus place” is a false dichotomy, as being clarifies by Holland (2015). In practice, the outcomes of urban policies inevitably affect both people and places.
Public led, place based, and social
Public led, people based, and social
Public led, place based, and economic
Public led, people based, and economic
Private led, place based, and social
Private led, people based, and social
Private led, place based, and economic
Private led, people based, and economic
Challenges to Urban Policy
In the current global process of urbanization, the concentration of vast numbers of people into densely packed areas creates enormous policy challenges. Urbanization potentially generates substantial benefits of economic development, social improvement, and effective use of resources. However, high density also exposes cities to greater risks of social disorder and environmental degradation. Urbanization also affects domestic and international migrations, the stability of the international society, and the resilience and sustainability of the global ecosystems. In the context of climate change and resource scarcity, there is little doubt that urban growth over the next few decades will have a major bearing on the well-being of several billion people (UN-Habitat 2014). There are ongoing global debates on the proper policy responses to the urban challenges. Among these debates, Glaeser (2012) believes the most expressing tasks of urban policy making include the optimal degree of centralization, private versus public provision of urban services, optimal land use regulation, appropriate spatial policies, and the use of engineering and economics approaches to reducing the negative consequences of density.
None of these challenges are close to being addressed, but researchers have generated a number of useful insights on them. For example, Peck and Tickell (2002) have summarized the “global common sense” of “neoliberal competitiveness” approaches to address the challenges, which include but not limited to “a ‘growth first’ approach to urban development,” “a commitment to ‘lean government, privatization, and deregulation,’” and a “naturalization” of the market as the model for decision-making and distribution (pp. 394–395). Learning from previous urban policy failures, Imbroscio (2016) suggests a paradigm shift of urban policy from “meritocratic paradigm” to “community paradigm.” The former paradigm leads to liberal policy approaches to lessen the barriers in the social environment that prevents meritocratic outcomes from being realized. In the community paradigm, social equity must be woven more tightly and more harmoniously into the very fabric of the paradigm itself (Imbroscio 2016). The establishing of good governance and the removal of bureaucratic barriers are also at the center of the discussion (Kellar 2015). While national governments obtain more resources to address urban problem, local governments have a greater sense of urgency to make better communities for their people. Will cities become the new centers of power around the world to develop more strategic approaches to these challenges? And will national governments give them the authority and resources to tackle the problems? Many questions remain to be answered. The next section focuses on the controversial role of national urban policy and the current trend of global urban policy.
From National to Global Urban Policy
A national urban policy refers to a coherent set of urban policies made from a deliberate government-led process of coordinating and rallying various actors for a national vision and goal (UN-Habitat 2014). The vision and goal is usually about to “promote more transformative, productive, inclusive and resilient urban development for the long term” (UN-Habitat 2014, p. III). The urban problems and opportunities across different nations are very contextually different. As a result, the policy strategies need to vary accordingly. A nation’s urban policy strategy is determined by many factors, including whether it is in rapid process of urbanization, the resources it has to invest in urban infrastructure and services, and its social, economic, and institutional capabilities. While the last attempts of explicit national urban policy during Carter’s administration in the USA have been unsuccessful within its fragmented federal system, many other national governments are taking aggressive top-down approaches to steer the urbanization process.
The demand of coherent national urban policy has been intensified in the global process of urbanization. National governments are more interested in urban policies today due to both negative and positive effects of urbanization. On one hand, large-scale urbanization causes all kinds of problems and pressure to urban spaces that requests the guidance and resources from higher-level governments. On the other hand, the “agglomeration economies” of urbanization is attracting increasing attention from the government (Cochrane 2007a; Turok and Parnell 2009; World Bank 2009; Jha et al. 2013). “Agglomeration economies” of urbanization refer to the economic gains from improved productivity, job creation, and higher living standards because of the geographical concentration of population and economic activities (Buck et al. 2005; Glaeser and Joshi-Ghani 2013; Duranton and Puga 2004).
A nation’s urban policy is an interactive and contested process with its own institutional dynamics and historical path. UN-Habitat (2014) summarizes the broad trajectory of urban policy evolution shared by many countries. It starts with simple reaction to urban problems by providing essential public services and infrastructure, followed by efforts to control and manage growth due to the challenges of congestion and overcrowding. Social and environmental programs are then made to ameliorate the effects of urban decline and poverty. These programs are usually the starting points of the efforts of renewal, reinvestment, and regeneration; there follows a new cycle of urban growth and development.
Nevertheless, the levels of urban development and the approaches of urban policy are contextually specific in each country. There is no universal model with a standard approaches and outcome that can be replicated in different scenario. A national urban policy must be tailored to fit the specific situations of the country. While considering the unique features of their own urban challenges, countries can definitely learn from lessons of other countries and societies. Based on the best practices of urban policies worldwide, several principles of urban policy are presented by UN-Habitat (2014) for many countries to follow. Firstly, the national urban policy should have “a forward-looking developmental agenda”; second, cross-cutting policies are needed to support each city and town which is on the frontline of urbanization; third, local institutions should be strengthened to plan and manage urban growth; and fourth, robust legal and financial instruments should be provided for the effective implementation of the urban policies.
While governments across the countries are devoted to addressing urban issues of their own, the globalization of urban policy has become a phenomenon. In the global age, the significance of national and local borders is eroding. Cities exist in a global system of interconnections. They may be impacted, both socially and economically, by forces originating from abroad out of their controls (Ross and Levine 2012). “Global cities” emerge as large cities from Pacific Asia to Oceania and from the USA to Western Europe become important nodes in the global economic system. These cities have a concentration of corporate headquarters and international financial institutions which control the networks of the global economic output and growth. In this sense, urban policy is no longer an aggregation of nationally or locally distinctive urban programs and initiative. Instead, there are active learning processes and elements of urban policy that are shared between different regions and nations (Cochrane 2007a).
The learning processes have accelerated the emergence of a global urban policy. A global urban policy emphasizes the economic importance of cities and urban places as “engines” of economic growth and social capacity building. In this sense, instead of being concentrations of social problems, entrepreneurial and competitive cities “become the basis on which prosperity and well-being may be constructed” (Cochrane 2007b, p. 665). There has been a major shift away from a vision of the state as regulator of the market to one in which the state is defined as agent of the market who provides the infrastructure for efficient production rather than welfare support to those left behind by the market. Many transnational organizations, such as World Bank, UN-Habitat, and OECD, have promoted programs and initiatives to create models of urban policy that can be applied across national borders. The basic approach has been creating “innovative” models for urban areas’ economic and social regeneration. A specific example would be the World Bank’s vision of “sustainable cities.” In this vision, four policy themes are highlighted for countries to follow: livability, competitiveness, good governance and management, and financial sustainability (World Bank 2000, pp. 46–52). These are all key components of a successful “global city” which builds its capacity based on its economic advancement. However, it is not an easy job to achieve all of them especially when the country is facing economic turbulence, social transition, and resource scarcity. What’s more questionable is the extent to which these global common sense have been able to build up global template of effective urban policy (Cochrane 2007a). As mentioned earlier, the nationally distinctive urban situation is always an important consideration of urban policy making. Therefore, the “localized” expression of the global urban policy will be a challenging but crucial step for states to take.
Although different countries may take various paths of urban transition and economic development, it is evident that urbanization is an inevitable company of the global-wide development process (UN-Habitat 2008). Urban policy is a broad category of social policy that tackles specific issues and challenges. Living in an increasingly urbanized society, it is difficult for us to identify urban policy among other social policies. Urban policy is pervasive in our daily lives and will continue to be so.
National or local urban policies have transformed driven by the rapid process of globalization. Meanwhile, the process and dynamics of globalization are also impacted by the progresses of urban policy. Today, the nature of the urban problems has been interpreted differently. Instead of a catalog of “social deprivation,” which urban policy needs to address, urban places have become centers of growth, innovations and entrepreneurialism (Cochrane 2007a). As a result, the urban “welfare” has been redefined as it stresses the economic success of cities and the access to employment and other resources for urban residents. The major challenge for the government becomes how to get the most out of the growth, innovations, and entrepreneurialism and bring social and economic benefits for those who are living in urban places.
As nations and places respond to their challenges and opportunities in novel ways, new urban policies are constructed with the emphasis of urban comparativeness. The new generation of urban policy is more aware of “the gravity of the issues at stake, more ambitious in scope, and more integrated in approach” than earlier generations (UN-Habitat 2014, p. 4–5). The approaches are twofolded. One involves achieving the political and institutional support for collective efforts to shape the path of urban growth, and the other is about developing legal frameworks, financial resources, and technical capabilities of instruments to implement the policies consistently. The substantial tools include but not limited to mining of big data for mega projects, the re-imagination of cities as green and sustainable, and the restructure of political institution for better governance, as being marked in urban places from Asia to Americas and to Europe.
The complexity of urban policy transformation means it cannot be accomplished by one single organization or system. The management of change and transformation is best achieved through “networks” of organizations and individuals working with each other, pooling resources and tackling the same problems (Stoker and Young 1993). This has been reflected by the emergence of various partnerships among public, private, and voluntary organizations, especially networks of global agencies (such as the Word Bank and UN-Habitat) seeking to build models for urban initiatives and programs. Moreover, as well as focusing on current needs, the policy making must also anticipate future changes. Social and economic changes need to be monitored and met by developing specific strategies for future needs (UN-Habitat 2014).
The complexity and ever-evolving nature of urban society also highlight the importance of research on urban policy. We cannot assume that urban policy necessarily increases urban well-being. Urban policies and programs should always be monitored, and their outcomes should be analyzed critically, with the benefits and costs evaluated. Moreover, urban policy cannot be studied without consider politics and “the whole question of who wins and who loses as a result of policy decisions” (Wolman and Goldsmith 1992). While researchers have discovered important facts about urban policy, the knowledge of this field is incomplete and keeps evolving. These under addressed concerns in the context of urbanization will keep challenging the researchers as long as there is a demand of services and policies for the urban society.
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