Why Strategic Planning Makes Sense for Cities

It might seem obvious a city should have a single, binding urban strategy, but you would be surprised at the lack of such things. In every city, there are various interests are competing for public and private investment. Strategic planning holds the key in this equation.

The success of strategic planning seems to be dependent on strong political will and leadership. It also depends on a government's ability to create entities that will carry the baton of strategic urban planning functions, and on delegations of authority.

Empowering and devolving authority to cities to lead their own development is a key in realizing the benefits of local strategic planning. Hot off the press, the UK Government's announcement that the City Policy Unit will oversee of a new wave of "City Deals" has people talking. These deals will give an additional 20 large cities new powers, in exchange for greater responsibility to stimulate and support economic growth.

Although it is too early to assess its impact, "the aim of these Deals is to enable cities to negotiate a deal and then reform," writes analyst Simon Chinn. "The approach recognises that there is no one-size fits all solution for urban policy."

At the same time, there are few game-breakers in the form of political changes to roll back progressive initiatives. Despite its successes, Australia's Major Cities Unit, which provided policy, planning, and infrastructure advice for government, private sector, and communities and produced the popular State of Australian Cities report, was dissolved in October 2013 due to a change in cabinet and subsequent political direction.

Losing sight of the goal is another detrimental blow to strategic planning. There are signs that Hong Kong's Urban Renewal Authority, which is tasked with leading upgrading and redevelopment of derelict buildings, is reducing its core business of fixing up old buildings in favor of chasing more profitable redevelopments.

A project office of the Hong Kong Urban Renewal Agency in St. James Settlement. (Source:  Wikimedia Commons )

A project office of the Hong Kong Urban Renewal Agency in St. James Settlement. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Vincent Ng Wing-shun of the Institute of Urban Design has criticized this regression by posing the question to local media, "Instead of scaling down the scheme, why can't the government further inject money into the authority to allow it to fulfill its social mission?

South African cities are contending with deeper structural issues than promoting economic growth and regeneration. Competing with Brazil, South Africa has some of the most unequal cities in the world, with gini-coefficients ranging around 0.6. But unlike Brazilian cities, South African cities are sprawled out. Current investment patterns are perpetuating the apartheid divisions that were laid in the 1950s (and even earlier, through colonial settlement planning).

Despite having a progressive history of urban and social housing policies, implementation has not fundamentally changed the racial divisions of cities. Now the National Treasury is looking towards a new strategy called "Urban Network Strategy," which is part of the City Support Programme. The premise of this approach, building on South Africa's ambitious infrastructure development plans for 2014-2019, is to "spatially target" public investment into prioritized corridors and nodes.

Since the launch of the City Support Programme, a number of large-scale developments have been triggered in underserved and poor townships. Bridge City in Durban, for instance, is a R4 billion ($400 million) mixed-use development linking the poor areas of Inanda, Ntuzuma, KwaMashu, and Phoenix to new industries, said to create 17,000 new jobs. At the heart of it is a mixed-use retail precinct built on top of a new train station.

The Urban Network Strategy aims to identify two types of networks in cities:

  1. A primary network linking the anchor business district and other urban hubs of city-wide significance with activity corridors
  2. A secondary network of smaller urban hubs serving township neighborhoods

Strategic planning opens opportunities to get the most benefits out of infrastructure for city residents that need access to opportunities most. Analyzing the city's urban texture by means of corridors and nodes give further impetus for spatially targeting investments. These plans have the potential to coordinate government, private sector, and community needs and aspirations, and so contribute to enhancing the unique identities of cities.

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  1. This article first appeared on UBM Future Cities