Dean Forbes

Planning Sustainable Cities. Global Report on Human Settlements 2009.

United Nations Human Settlements Programme, Earthscan, London and Sterling VA, 2009, xxx + 306 pp. ISBN 978-1-84407-899-8 pbk.

In 2008, when the global town and city population surpassed the number of people in rural areas, the next urban century commenced.  There is no turning back.  As the global population continues to expand ways must be found to manage cities more effectively and sustainably, and it needs to happen quickly.  Around one third of the total urban population still live in slums.  In sub-Saharan Africa the figure is 62%.  The effort required to improve cities is enormous.

Planning Sustainable Cities summarises the current and future urban challenges facing the world, and the existing policy and planning landscapes.  It then moves on to reflect on ideas about how urban planning education might change in order to better tackle the global urban agenda.

The focus is both cities in the developed and developing world, but the bulk of the text concentrates on the developing countries, where the problems of urbanisation and city breakdown are greatest.  It adopts a helicopter view.  The boxed case studies of planning initiatives are necessarily short, of course, and the text is often bland as it skates along on generalities.  However, this enables the book to fulfil its purpose of providing a broad-ranging overview of at least one version of current collective wisdom. 

Sitting behind the small core team responsible for the book is an army of external consultants, international advisors, and authors of background papers.  The names, many of them well known in global urban studies, spread across two and a quarter A4 pages. 

The result is that the text is strongly shaped by perspectives loosely associated with international agencies, especially the United Nations Human Settlements Program UN Habitat), and academia.  In contrast, the Urban Management Program, an initiative of the World Bank and UN Habitat, comes in for criticism (p 66).  UN Habitat disengaged from the program in 2006 over apparent differences in approaches to urban planning models.

The text has a strong social justice agenda. Issues surrounding slum housing and the informal economy are given special attention, recognising just how significant they are in the list of urban problems still to be adequately addressed.  Governments are urged to think strategically about working with slum dwellers to improve their housing and incomes, not reacting by bulldozing the settlements out of existence, and expecting the problems to disappear.  The message is at least 40 years old, but still fails to get traction in many cities.

A focus on sustainable cities is thread through the text.  It highlights the importance of the causes and impacts of climate change, preparations for environment disasters, and the management of post-conflict reconstruction, stretching the traditional definitions of the role of urban planners.  National urban policies are advocated to connect together the understanding of the shifting urban agenda.

The inclusion of a chapter on urban planning education is an unusual feature of the book.  The rationale is that in order for urban planning to adapt better to the new urban agenda, innovations in the curricula of planning schools will be necessary.  A shift in planning education away from physical design towards better understanding of the policy and social aspects of cities is underway in some western countries.  However it is argued that in much of Asia and Latin America the emphasis remains on technical skills, master plans and urban design.  The book takes the line that a social sciences driven approach incorporating negotiating skills, managing community participation in planning, policy development and gender-related issues are essential components of planning curricula.  A question is asked about whether an international accreditation system for planners could improve standards of excellence.

There is a strong emphasis on the role of government in planning cities and the increasing role of public participation in the process.  However, the book more often than not expresses a jaundiced view of the role of the private sector in urban development. Market forces are said not to deliver good outcomes.  The private provision of infrastructure and services, and the increased number of urban mega-projects, are viewed negatively. They are lumped together as belonging to out-dated ‘modernist’ approaches to master planning.  Public private partnerships:

‘can neglect social inclusion, equality and sustainability objectives, everyday service delivery and the achievement of high-quality urban design’ (p 16) 

However, at other points in the text public private partnerships are said to enable the financing of innovative pilot projects in sustainable development, enabling governments to do more, and spreading risk (p 130). Overall there is an unsettling lack of consistency in the approach to partnerships between government and the private sector

The global financial crisis’s impact on cities is given due acknowledgement.  However a  real gap in the coverage is the minimal consideration of the significance of urban strategies to accelerate economic growth, and the social and physical infrastructure critical to success.  An example is the modern knowledge economy. The digital revolution, broadband and the internet do not feature. Technology gets little attention.  Universities are mentioned only in the context of planning education, not research and innovation.  Planning is presented as being about the provision of basic infrastructure and services, coping with environmental problems and the changing skills required of planners, not about providing support for economic transformation.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed leafing through this book more than I initially expected. In fact, so much so that I finished off my reading and wrote this review at the beginning of an eagerly awaited short period of recreation leave.  It could well find a place on a student’s reading list.  I support its advocacy of a ‘one-world’ approach to planning education, enabling graduates of planning schools to work in a range of different countries, not just the country in which they studied planning.  While there remain vast differences between cities such as Singapore and Lagos, or Kolkata and New York, a mutual understanding of the new kinds of problems confronting cities across the planet could be very beneficial.  Students who read this book might just find it gives them an insight into the way the other half lives.