How governance gives shape to urban form

For 10 years the Urban Age Programme has studied a mix of rapidly urbanising and mature cities in both developing and developed countries to better understand the relationship between the physical form of cities and their social make-up. Researchers at LSE Cities have investigated where people live, work, and how they choose to travel between these places. This research has particularly focused on how cities are governed given the over-arching impact this has on the shape of our cities.

Even though London and New York compete for first position in many global rankings, different decisions on how to share land use mean these cities don’t only look different – people’s options, like where to live and how to get to work, are different too. The choice to intervene (Manhattan’s regular street grid and generally higher densities) and the choice not to intervene (London’s apparently haphazard layout with dispersed residential patterns) stem from decisions relating to how to govern. One of the results of these choices is that Londoners, on average, take longer to get to work given that New Yorkers are concentrated more closely around work opportunities.


This highlights how decisions relating to urban form, sometimes made centuries prior, can lock residents into certain choices or path dependencies. Decisions aren’t only impacted on by local history: the relative autonomy cities have from regional, national, or even international institutions – like the European Union or trade organisations – influences and limits the decisions city leaders are able to make. Environmental and economic shocks may act as further barriers to a local governments’ ability to intervene. City layouts may have historical influences, but ultimately the end product is the result of decisions – conscious or not – about how cities should be put together.


Strong civic leadership is a critical component in managing urban change and directing cities towards more sustainable futures. However, governing cities is more complicated when city administrations have limited power, and where functional urban regions extend beyond administrative boundaries. In these instances, city officials often lack the authority to effectively manage the people who live and work in their cities. In several cities, mayors have been introduced as a way of providing clearer leadership vision, but this also requires effective coordination between sub-city and higher levels of government.



London’s mayor was able to introduce congestion charging, while New York’s mayor was not able to because this policy didn’t suit the New York State. Residents in New York City’s preference for walking and public transport – highlighted in modal share – was opposed beyond the city’s borders where density levels are lower and poor public transport integration between state and city doesn’t work to reduce the preference for driving into the city from outer-lying urban areas. The debate surrounding the most appropriate scale for city government has included a strong argument for devolving both fiscal and governing powers down from higher tiers of government to strengthen local autonomy. However, strategic oversight may be required too: London’s sub-city local authorities may have been unable to push through the coordinated congestion charge policy or strategic public transport projects facilitated by the creation of a city-wide mayor in 2000. This hasn’t required ceding all control: local boroughs still manage 90% of roads, while the mayor, via Transport for London, controls the major arteries which carry 30% of the city’s traffic.


In Rio de Janeiro, as in many other Latin American cities, the misalignment between city and state boundaries has social equity issues, effectively pushing informal housing to the edges of the city where it is unclear who is responsible to provide basic services. Only half of those living within the functional urban region fall within the city’s administrative boundary, increasing the need for interaction with higher levels of government. Cities have tackled this challenge in different ways. Bogotá reconfigured its boundaries so most of the population now fall under the mayor’s authority while Istanbul realigned its boundary more closely with the province’s to enable better coordination across the urban region. The threefold increase in land area to 5,343 km2 makes Istanbul’s municipality one of the largest in the world. As a consequence, the Metropolitan Mayor’s power has increased considerably while the powers of the Provincial Special Authority have been reduced.


Giant municipal boundaries might bring new challenges if they end up freeing up lots of land for development, encouraging sprawl. Only 20 per cent of Istanbul’s land area is built up. Portland has instead opted for cohesive regional governance to control urban sprawl, coordinating policies to encourage public transport use, walking and cycling. Cities like Stockholm and Copenhagen are older examples of strong regional land-use and transport planning. The result is that 40 per cent of Stockholm’s residents live within 500 metres from a metro station, while bicycle-friendly Copenhagen, which has one of the world’s highest bike mode shares, benefits from having living and working areas within cycling distance.


In spite of these examples of cooperative governance, administrative boundaries more closely matching metropolitan populations tend to increase the likelihood that governance of the metropolitan region will be efficiently coordinated. Lagos and Manila – with comparably sized metropolitan populations – are at opposite ends of the spectrum, while the 12 cities the Urban Age has focused on are dotted in between. Only Istanbul’s enlarged boundary and Hong Kong’s coincide with 100% of the cities’ populations.

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