Healthy Urbanization Requires Long-term Planning

Urban Renewal #4, by Edward Burtynsky

Researchers at the McKinsey Global Institute have been studying the process of urbanization – what works and what doesn’t – and argue in this article that the detrimental effects of rapid city growth are not directly the result of insufficient resources. Rather, they stem from management that is neither comprehensive enough nor farsighted enough.

Does this imply that the future will be one of massive megalopolises spread across the globe? Theoretically, the answer is yes—there is no limit to the size of cities. In practice, however, the growth of most urban centers is bound by an inability to manage their size in a way that maximizes scale opportunities and minimizes costs. Large urban centers are highly complex, demanding environments that require a long planning horizon and extraordinary managerial skills. Many city governments are simply not prepared to cope with the speed at which their populations are expanding.

Theoretical physicist Geoffrey West spoke at The Long Now Foundation’s SALT series in July of 02011 and discussed how cities tend to become more efficient and productive as they grow, and that they do so at an exponential rate. The challenge, as he described it, is that cities have to innovate faster and faster in order to keep up with superlinear growth. So how can city governments cope? The authors of the McKinsey Global Institute article, Richard Dobbs and Jaana Remes, outline four principles to guide the leaders of quickly growing metropolises:

First, successful cities need sufficient funding to finance their running costs and new infrastructure. Sources of funding could include monetizing land assets and levying property taxes, sales taxes, or user charges. Second, cities need modern, accountable governance; many large successful cities, including London and New York, have opted for empowered mayors with long tenures and clear accountability. Third, cities need proper planning that spans a 1- to 40-year horizon. Finally, all cities should craft dedicated policies in critical areas such as affordable housing.

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