National Urban Development Strategy

Thursday, October 19, 2017 - 14:49

Reviewing national urban development strategies for developing countries this could at the same time apply to strategies for those already developed. One only has to look at some of the choked multilane highways in California and gridlock in other cities to understand that the need for sustainable planning strategies could be applied anywhere. Otherwise of course it would be possible to do nothing. On the positive side, politicians of any ilk need to be re-elected, so whether rightly or wrongly some progress can be made especially with new technology as where tunneling has become more economically viable.

One of the realities in both developing and developed economies which planners need to consider, is that the trend towards urban living continues because cities are where the jobs tend to be. Due to the mechanisation of farming not as many people are required on the land. In planning therefore, accepting that this movement to the cities will continue, the approach can be either to accept this as inevitable and plan for the greater numbers, or to circumvent this by development of satellite cities providing sufficient jobs and perhaps a better lifestyle. Obviously immigration policy can have something to contribute to the equation but as per the multiplier effect, employ four people and you need one extra to service them.

The main difficulty in planning for satellite cities is the need to start by developing a “critical mass” right from the beginning so that the jobs exist to attract the residents who at the same time need to have other areas of entertainment. The process has been used for considerable time by governments such as the founding of Dodoma in Kenya as a center of government in the middle of nowhere, more recently Naypyitaw in Myanmar (almost empty but four time the area of London) and of course Canberra, Australia. These experiments work to a certain extent where politicians would go for scheduled meetings after which they go back home and these became ghost towns. Some take time to grow but the alternative is to develop a "critical mass".

The ability to attract businesses to implement a critical mass necessary to kick off development will align with the time required to attract population which creates a difficulty for the planners who usually work on population densities. The numbers in this case become more difficult to calculate. An essential part of the planning at this level requires concentration on access routes which could be ports for sea or river access. It can be linkages with neighbouring countries. A local airport assists greatly especially when these can be made international attracting flights from overseas where landing rights from larger terminals are difficult to obtain. Difficult if a major highway bypasses a proposed new city site. On the other hand some planners believe as in Field of Dreams, "Build it and they will come". Have a nice beach, build some hotels and bungalows and the rest will follow. Except there is still the temptation to locate the industrial park right next to it because the money is needed.

One of the techniques for developing critical mass has long been through the establishment of the special business or economic zones which can also focus on export. The incentive here is the government’s provision of land and tax and duty exemptions. These initiatives work especially well where developers and in some case governments also provide low-cost housing for the workers, along with free bus transport to nearby centres. This type of development also solves some of the strain in providing affordable housing and overcomes some resettlement pressures if built into the equation.

The overall and overriding difficulty regarding any of this development is the cost and time factor. Major developments which include roads, bridges, ports and airports can’t be build bit by bit and spread over many years but the available budget funding may need to be. It therefore becomes difficult for the people behind the planning, including politicians who are happy to demonstrate immediate results as in the building of a bridge but then are constrained if it takes years to pay this off, with no money for any other show pieces. Privately funded toll roads are an example of where the private sector can be made to carry this burden but these are never popular with the public in the long run when they eventually pay tolls to sit in gridlock.

On the funding issue, it also raises the question of chasing development for development sake and relaxing planning laws in the name of expediency. It is not made easier especially in the developing world when government is carrying out the construction and the regulator is also part of government. One government department is always loath to be critical of, and certainly reticent in fining another government agency.

One of the main financial issues for both developing and developed economies lies in the cost of resettlement to facilitate road, rail and in some case for some special economic zones. In a development context, up to 80% of a road cost through a village can be for relocation compensation and even after that it is not possible to always please everyone. The public do not see the benefit of the 80% and can complain that a road should cost that much. In Beijing with the demolition of the Hutongs, where local communities all knew each other, people were moved to high-rises where they did not know anyone and it was questionable whether their quality of life was improved.

Mentioning “quality-of-life” returns the funding question to what urban planning should be all about? So it needs to look at sustainability. On the checklist for planners of what these terms mean, it would be proposed that it all starts with the word “survival“, meaning those issues which cover the provision of clean air and clean water for all, proper treatment of waste water, and access to food (meaning home grown or markets) and access to shelter. It might also include the means by which money can be made (jobs) to facilitate the foregoing. Survival also includes attention to drainage and flooding mitigation. Following that, the issues that need to be factored in and costed would be provision of health services, education (all levels) and what could generally be called providing a “liveable environment”. The latter term can be far reaching but would include access to other areas, access to local facilities such as restaurants, parks, hotels and other amusement areas, all of which make life tolerable. It would also include maintenance of roads, building up barriers against erosion and rubbish collection.

Having noted all of these points, the difficulty for the planners is to prioritise the demands for funds which always exceed supply, so as to balance a development strategy. Historically economies have planned from the top down but to establish a workable compromise it is necessary to provide a planning process where the bottom up word can be heard so that people are happy in their environment and feel they are being listened to.

So if the proposal is for bottom up, the question becomes what should be the structure for managing the plan at the lower level. It would be recognised that local communities might not have the facilities to accurately plan what developments they want in their local area but they can make the suggestions so that then at Council or city level these can be put into their specific plans. Under development strategies it also appears that there is a greater and increasing need for funding to be sourced at this lower level so that especially in planned economies, there needs to be increased focus on commercial operations. There needs to be someone such as a "City" (commercial) manager who can deal with business at local level since it is difficult to organise development of business opportunities if a prospective entrepreneur needs to go through a lengthy bidding process. This can be achieved by employing separate business zones where they have a mandate to operate on a wider front than the existing legislation but for the system to work and attract the future revenue levels required, a similar principle needs to be enshrined at city level outside the zones.

As global population heads towards 9 billion all of these planning tasks will become critical focused on urban living aimed always at quality-of-life.