The Urban Guru Website

Making city planning affordable to all countries

01/12/2004 00:00

Conventional urban planning or master planning almost passed away in the mid 1980s, particularly

in developing countries. Many reasons explain this not so sudden “death”:

In terms of process, urban plans were designed by bureaucrats and experts, generally ignoring political and social dynamics of the city. City planning was a top-down technocratic exercise, not too different from economic planning.

In terms of product, urban plans were essentially spatial zoning and land-use maps, not associated with investment planning and resource mobilisation.

In terms of implementation, urban planning was generally blind on institutional issues such as the relationship between sectoral ministries, and between central and local governments. It did not associate long-term goals with daily city management constraints and short-term priorities.

In terms of strategy, urban planning tried to go around the need for policy and legal reforms, and often unquestioningly accepted existing situations. Consequently, it failed to address the root-causes of many urban problems.  As a result of these limitations, most Master Plans were simply not implemented.

Many still lie in the archive unit of Urban Development Ministries and Town Planning Departments.

The international debt crisis of the early 1980s dealt a fatal blow to traditional urban planning as structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) were imposed in many developing countries. Under SAPs, governments

had to slash social spending, including on basic services in order to repay their debt. Urban planning became irrelevant as there was nothing to plan.


The revival of city planning


Planning came back through the environmental window in conjunction with the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. UN-HABITAT was one of the agencies that re-appraised urban planning and subsequently introduced participatory planning and management as an element of good urban governance.

At the Istanbul City Summit, while urban planning did not figure as a key issue in its own right, it was in fact subsumed under the broader urban governance framework which emerged as the main outcome

of Habitat II. This new planning was expected to meet the following criteria:

In terms of process, urban plans should be prepared in a democratic way, involving civil society organizations and all concerned stakeholders. Experts should mainly play a facilitating role.

In terms of product, strategic plans or City Development Strategies should replace master plans. The focus should be on a shared vision for the city (linking social development, economic productivity

and environmental protection) and on multi-partner action plans to translate this vision into reality by

addressing priority issues.

In terms of implementation, local authorities should be in the driving seat as the level of government closest to the citizens. Powers and resources should be decentralised and local capacities strengthened. Planning and urban management should be closely integrated.

• In terms of strategy, planning should be considered as a tool, its effectiveness dependent directly on the quality of the urban governance system. Good governance and appropriate urban policy should almost automatically lead to good planning. Several programmes of UN-HABITAT, such as the Urban Management Programme and the Sustainable Cities Programme, have demonstrated that this new type of city planning is feasible provided it is focused, locally-owned and politically supported. However it seems

too early to claim that urban planning is back on the global development scene.


Can urban planning become affordable for all?


The new planning approach promoted by international organisations and already adopted by several developed countries, is a complex process requiring a lot of discussions, commitment and continuity

in leadership, and adequate capacities at different levels. This process is hardly affordable by least developed countries (LDCs) which lack institutional capacities, financial resources and often clear policies.

The challenge, therefore, is to identify and promote a minimalist approach to urban planning, i.e. an approach that would generally respect the abovementioned criteria while simultaneously focusing on very few top priorities considered as essential for guiding urban development. This concept could be called “affordable participatory planning”. By definition, the minimalist planning approach should not be comprehensive but selective:

The process should mobilise civil society and political organizations in the definition of the vision (“the city we want”) and priority areas (“hotspots”) through popular consultations;

In terms of product, it would usually prioritise infrastructure development with emphasis (especially in LDCs) on primary road and water networks and on pricing and municipal finance;

Implementation should include a strong component on institutional strengthening, particularly at the local


The strategy should preferably be associated with a review/reform of urban governance legislation, rules and practices.

Of course minimal planning requires maximum political commitment to ensure impact and sustainability. With such commitment, urban planning can certainly become affordable and useful. But planners should also accept to play a more modest and more targeted role in the management of urban affairs.