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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Governance of Spatial Planning

This case study is a snapshot of the results from a set of 104 city governments that took part in the first and second phases of the Urban Governance Survey.  The sample includes cities from the five continents. The majority of cities surveyed are located in Europe (46) followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (22), Asia (17), Africa (11), North America (7) and Oceania (1). About half of the cities surveyed have more than 500,000 inhabitants.

This brief analysis focuses on role that local governments play in spatial development and on the governance of spatial policy more broadly. Our respondents were asked to rate the level of influence of different levels of government (below city, city, metropolitan, regional/state, national/federal and supranational) over 19 areas of spatial planning, ranging from the regulation of spatial developments to the management of green spaces, and including land use taxation, to name only a few.

According to a majority of respondents (representing the perceptions of local governments), the ‘urban’ tiers of government (below city, city and metropolitan) are leading spatial planning strategies in key domains such as green spaces management, broader land use strategies (including master planning, land use planning, neighborhood planning) and the spatial aspect of local economic policy.


In half of the cities surveyed, urban governments are responsible for shaping future spatial developments in the medium-long term through strategic planning, which remains a key prerogative of local governments. Similarly, ‘urban authorities ‘are predominantly responsible for setting up land use and neighborhood plans, as well as for granting planning permissions. The overseeing of spatial economic and industrial strategy, infrastructural developments (green infrastructures, utilities) also tends to be led by cities.

Yet, in other planning sectors, the results are more nuanced. In some areas like road construction permissions, transport and major infrastructural schemes, the dominance of cities is less pronounced, as national governments remain heavily involved in these developments. In the case of transportation and major infrastructural projects, which require large investments, the influence of national and regional authorities exceeds that of urban governments. Housing planning and land tax regulations are two other key policy areas where national governments are also very influential.

In the context of the post-2015 agenda, these insights have strong implications as cities are increasingly called into action to contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. By establishing an “urban” SDG (SDG11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities), the international community recognizes the importance of local governments in securing inclusive, sustainable and resilient futures. The ability of cities to design and implement ambitious spatial policies will determine future social, economic and environmental directions around the globe. Whilst municipal governments across the world seem to be in a good position to lead the way, or at least to have the capacity to influence spatial developments in a number of domains, UN-Habitat have highlighted in several studies the need to strengthen planning and monitoring skills within local authorities. In particular, mapping skills and the development of urban indicators to inform future spatial policy as well as spatial data monitoring tools to track progress towards the achievement of the post-2015 agenda.

Influencing local policies

This case study is a snapshot of the results from a set of 50 city governments that took part in the first phase of the survey. A more detailed analysis of the same sample was presented in the Newspaper of the “Governing urban Futures” Urban Age Conference. You can access the Data Section of the Newspaper here and the full document here.

The sample analysed here includes information from five continents and 30 countries, with stronger representation of cities from the Americas and Europe. 25 cities have higher income economies, and 29 cities have populations of over 500,000 people.

The influence of citizens

Citizens have the ability to influence local policies in multiple ways. Voting in elections is the most common and was reported by 44 of the cities in the sample. The vast majority of city governments are governed by an executive mayor who is directly elected versus appointed or indirectly elected mayors. ‘Voting’ is followed by ‘public consultation’, as a further means of influencing policy, and then (with an equal number of mentions) ‘online engagement’ and ‘formal petitions’. Interestingly, a large number of cities also stated that participatory budgeting is one of the processes through which citizens can influence local policies. Some of the cities which have given more detailed replies noted that that youth councils and joint planning processes are integral to how citizens participate in local policies. The survey also found that the larger the city in terms of population, the less capacity citizens have to influence local policies, suggesting that while larger cities may profit from economies of scale and economic resilience, they at the same may offer reduced levels of subsidiarity.


Governing different urban policy sectors

Substantial differences in urban governance across different cities exist with regards to the sectoral distribution of political power. The survey reveals a clear tendency whereby certain policy sectors are exposed to greater political powers at the urban level while others are more centralised at the level of state or national governments. City level governments take greater responsibility for spatial planning, culture, utilities and transport – and are far less involved with other policy sectors, such as health and education. Other sectors that are more greatly influenced from the local level are social services, policing and security. The ability to lead on specific policy sectors also directly relates to questions of budget and revenue streams. Cities which do not have the budget to administer certain policy sectors tend to also lack executive powers in these areas. Some cities have pointed out that they are under additional influence from regional and provincial bodies. The local policies of European cities are also strongly influenced by supranational bodies such as the European Union. Other cities noted the importance of public consultations as well as NGOs and public organisations.


Governing urban transport

Given the particular relevance of urban transport and the governance of transport sub-sectors, the survey illustrates the sector’s substantial exposure to multi-level governance. While city governments tend to lead on small- and medium-scale public infrastructure initiatives – such as public space improvements, cycle paths, footpaths and smaller roads – large-scale infrastructure tends to be controlled by state and national governments, often requiring substantial external investments. Both highway infrastructure and operations and rail-based transport are the most centralised transport sub-sectors, mainly led by national government.