AUB City Debates: Post2015 – Urban and Regional Planning Challenges for International Aid

This is a synthesis of the keynote “Post2015 – Urban and Regional Planning Challenges for International Aid” given by Pr Susan Parnell (African Centre for Cities, South Africa) and discussed by Pr Mona Harb and Pr Mona Fawwaz (American University of Beirut, Lebanon) at the AUB City Debates 2016 (other reports are listed here).

Astronot photo of Cape Town, c. NASA

Professor Parnell starts her presentation with a satellite night picture of the Southern part of Africa, allowing to identify the urban sprawl by the concentration of lights in wide and undelimited areas. Taking this perspective as a starting point for her presentation, Professor Parnell argues that it is essential in that area to consider at first the long-standing question of who is or is not a urbanite. The urban condition is not an obvious one on that account, leading to the question of the city being a political one, and an unclear one too. This unclarity will be a theme of the exposé.

To go to the question of mobility, we can notice, says Parnell, that it has mostly been thought of as a phenomenon taking place between cities. But we cannot ignore the existence of a global urban agenda, which has been formulated in the new agenda of the 2030 goals which mark an explicit commitment to cities, instead of focusing on poverty only, for instance. There is a global context of paradigm shift in terms of policy, relying on five main points of reflexion:

  1. The idea that people ought to have the same rights in all cities, and that the division between Worlds can lead to the assumption that the inequality between urban rights in the “First World” and the others is legitimate, while it must be fought.
  2. The language has shifted from a language of fighting poverty to a language of fighting inequality.
  3. Another change is a reflexion on how non-Nation-State actors matter and play a role.
  4. While the previous era was marked by a comprehension of the social, mostly through the prism of the economic, these new goals focus on an imbrication of the social, the environmental, and the economic. This change of perspective matters as it induces a global responsibility, and a responsibility for what happens in other places as well.
  5. Finally the question of the existence of a right to the city, and whether it is too radical or not clear enough, is raised.

Parnell’s main point is that this all happens in a context of urban blurness, as said in introduction, and of lack of consensus on the way forward in three worlds: academia, the donors, and the practitioners. Even on very basic elements, consensus is hardly reached. For example, although all these actors argue conjointly that the city is important, nobody exactly knows why they are so.

a. Scholars divided

The question of the urban is asked in a multi-disciplinary manner, making the scholarship on cities extremely messy. The topics approached are generally focused on questions of urban governance and urban needs. These dimensions vary depending on places, leading to the difficulty of identifying a common approach:

  1. The problem of urban growth is not universal: in the same time, dynamics of urban decline are persistant and existing, sometimes in the same countries and region as growth.
  2. Informality – which is an inadequate term – has often been considered as deemed to disappear, but we can see its development. It actually is a long-term form of urban organisation.
  3. Globalisation has often been considered through an economic rather than geographical lense, which has to be changed, especially to include the way mobility occurs.
  4. The phenomenon of metropolization has often been considered as the relation between a major city and smaller towns, which is adequate. But more and more it becomes a competition between major cities or conflicts between major and minor cities as well.

On these debates the academic literature is, for Parnell, inadequately scattered. The worst dimension of this division is not the existence of separate debates in itself, but rather the fact that the different debates do not exchange with one another. For example on various angles:

  1. On the question of the environment, the debate on planetary urbanism (the fact that cities exist everywhere on the planet and tend to grow) does not tackle the questions raised by the debate on the human anthropocene (which argues that the urban and human fact has become the leading geological phenomenon on the era) and the work on urban ecosystems which focuses on the relationship of the city with its environment in terms of resource consumption and production for example.
  2. On the question of the “global South”, debates regarding the application of a specific Asian model, on global urbanism, and on the classic models are present but do not exchange as well.

The same argument can be made on every debate. In general, there is an absence of a single voice of scholars on these questions, and this leads to an absence of answers to the questions raised by policy-makers. There is for instance a lack of consensus regarding whether cities are sites, centres, or pathways of economic, social, ecological productivity in a global system, although these three different approaches underlie different conceptions of urban policies. The approach provided by African scholars, which has on the long-term been entangled with questions of public policy, should serve as an example: the situation of African cities is often one of “poly-crisis”, a situation of crisis on multiples domains and levels. This has favoured research on the urban to be always translational (focused on defining itself as a political act) on that continent.

This has favoured synthesis according to Parnell: the development of inter-disciplinarity and mixed methods is embedded in the literature, as well as a practice of not fetichising cities. It focuses much more on the material dimensions of the urban, rather than the affective, on the macrosocial rather than the microsocial, and on the state rather than the civil society (although the civil society is considered through its interactions with the state). In other words this literature has constructed its objects through the requirement of acting politically. This led it to question boundaries such as formal/informal, individual/global to focus on urban systems and their concrete existence.

b. Donors divided

From inside the donors’ community there is no question that the donors are not able to face the crisis. This is partly because most donors are in a weak position which restricts them to acting at the micro-level (this is particularly the case of UN-Habitat). This situation is made worse because of a failing culture in the donors’ community:

  • It is mostly pro-rural and pro-Nation-state, thus rarely focusing on cities (even in the repartition of the support it provides).
  • It avoids supporting Nations marked by a strong urban growth (such as India).
  • Old and traditional donors (except for Germany and France) have dismantled their own urban capacity, which is very hard to rebuild.
  • And finally it is extremely under-funded.

This situation has led to the emergence of new dynamics, generally supported by formerly-marginalised donors:

  • An approach no longer in terms of relief, but of investment.
  • The rise of the importance of Foundations, which have an impact but remain on a scattered agenda.
  • The rise of importance of liberal corporates who see urban policy as a future source of investment.
  • The focus on the urban as a space of humanitarian help, which can serve as a beckdoor entrance for urban expertise.
  • A certain number of organisations (such as the Cities Alliance) are attempting to mark the development of a new urban intellectual leadership and are searching for expertise.

This marks a divided but growing field.


c. Practice

In general practice shows the development of an approach of urbanism through the existing which can be interesting. The importation of the notion of city-region in the case of Durban is a good example: the city was marked by conflicts between actors (especially between the formal and informal actors), the multiplicity of types of governance, and a lack of money, in a context of lack of access to urban services both within and without the city. Developing the area of influence of the city may have led to a conflict with traditional leaders in the countryside. Therefore, the development of the “city-region” have been privileged, relying on a deal with the leaders: funding would be acquired for the whole region, and primarily directed toward the interior of the city’s boundaries, and some development would be made for the outskirts in exhange of maintainment of the leaders’ power. Therefore even though some actors would win less, all would benefit from urban development. This relied on a strong rural Zulu nationalist discourse which the dispositive included. Regionalism, in the context of a post-apartheid state, was used as a way to build bottom-up policial coalitions around the city. This “Area Based Management” system shows the efficiency of working urban theory from the local scale.


Pr Fawwaz led the discussion of this keynote, and started – after acknowledging the importance of the paper – by establishing parallels with the Lebanese situation: in Lebanon and the Middle East there is a certain importance of scholars on such questions. Nonetheless a point of criticism concerned the cleavage between that necessity of participating in policy-making, and the timescale of research, which expands on several years and demands frequent publishing. Pr Fawwaz wondered what sort of work could be done on that. What is more, Pr Fawwaz noted that the “they” of “They allied” in the context of Durban was not explicit: who was that “they”? Similarly, how did the agreement on the pact of elites in the case of Durban happen?

On the first question, Pr Parnell insisted that a new practice such as the one of the “city labs” or the journal Urbanization was to get ideas out there. Besides, she insisted that the good practice would be to quote each other’s work to give it visibility, rather than publishing in Urban Studies or Environment and Planning. On the second question, the “they” did indeed cover the elites, and this pact happened through intellectuals, but activists rather than academics (people coming from the state, parties, local councils, etc.).

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