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.