City beats country, but we gotta do better

This week two reports were released which tell us quite a bit about the opportunities and issues within urbanisation.

First there was the Global Monitoring Report 2013 from the World Bank, which reports on progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals.  The findings are clear – urbanisation is good news, with clear advantages for the quality of life for city-dwellers as compared to those in rural areas.

Infographic of the advantages and challenges of urbanisation, ref Global Monitoring Report 2013 (World Bank)

However, the report clearly states that urbanisation needs to be managed to ensure good outcomes:

  • Planning – charting a course for cities by setting the terms of urbanisation, especially policies for using urban land and expanding basic infrastructure and public services
  • Connecting – making a city’s markets (labour, goods, services) accessible to other neighbourhoods in the city, to other cities, and to outside export markets
  • Financing – finding sources for large capital outlays needed to provide infrastructure and services as cities grow and urbanisation picks up speed

This provides a neat segue to the second report for the week – Productive Cities: Opportunities in a Changing Economy by the Grattan Institute.  Although this report examines the specific challenges facing Melbourne as the inner versus outer divide increases, the issues it documents are entirely consistent with what is set out in the World Bank report above, proving that the challenges of “managed urbanisation” are not simply for developing nations.

The issues described in the Grattan Institute report reflect the land-use planning tension that is the economics of suburban sprawl versus urban densification.  The authors identify some of the obvious solutions without addressing the root causes – the politics of market-driven sprawl, local land-use planning and infrastructure financing defeating good land-use/transport planning policy.

Unfortunately there are no easy solutions, as was evidenced by yesterday’s announcement that the much needed east-west transport link across the north of Melbourne would be a road tunnel rather than rail or both.  As a transport planning decision, this reflects the realities of financing major transport infrastructure – private sector investors are far more attracted to roads than public transport, and the politics of government prevent borrowing to the extent of influencing credit-ratings or instituting road-user charging to cross-subsidise public transport.  Having done my time in the public sector making no ground on this challenge, I’ve taken what could be described as the coward’s approach by admitting defeat and embracing technology as an alternative strategy (even if it doesn’t address the root cause).

Buried away in the middle of the World Bank report is a section that looks at the influence of mobile technology:

…the extraordinary rise in mobile phone penetration has led to the emergence of a variety of innovations that allow citizens, governments, and international organizations to be more engaged and better informed, and that enable aid providers to identify and communicate more directly with beneficiaries

Numerous studies have found a positive relationship between ICT adoption and economic development in general

An evaluation of initial experiences suggests that the benefits accrue to those countries that put in place policies and programs that not only enable technological transformation but also support institutional reforms and process redesign through which services are delivered

A job for a future post is to delve more deeply into these observations and examine the crossover between the issues and opportunities of developed versus developing nations. The outcome will hopefully inform some thinking around ‘Creating Shared Value’.

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