Success and the city – Learning from international urban policies

Published by Policy Exchange, London, 13 March 2008 (PDF)

By Tim Leunig and James Swaffield, edited by Oliver Marc Hartwich

Success and the city: Learning from international urban policies is the second in a series of three reports on urban regeneration policy published by Policy Exchange and Localis.

Home … – Current top-down urban policy in Britain is proving ineffective at both helping the worst performing cities keep pace with national changes and in allowing the best performing ones to maximise their strengths and potential. The result is an uneven geography of opportunity for people across the country.

… and Abroad – Regeneration, and urban policy more widely, are worldwide issues. Many cities around the globe face similar issues to British cities – bringing business in, developing labour markets, addressing poverty and segregation, and encouraging people to migrate back to the city. Learning from this wealth of international experience is critical to improving the design, delivery and success of policy in the UK.

Based on research in six city-regions – Vancouver, Amsterdam, the Ruhr, Lódz, Warsaw and Hong Kong – across three continents, Success and the city analyses how policy can be made to deliver healthy cities.

  • Autonomy – The degree of flexibility given to cities matters. Designing and delivering urban change is best done at the city level. The more removed the level of decision-making, the lower the likelihood of success. The Ruhr and Hong Kong exemplify the returns from city-led urban policies. The message is clear: decentralise where possible, centralise only if necessary.
  • Innovation – Freedom alone does not guarantee success. Devolving powers without ensuring competences leads to poor outcomes. The Polish cities of Lódz and Warsaw have considerable local freedoms but have not brought about change as quickly as expected due to low levels of policy knowledge. Powers on paper need to be matched by ideas on how to bring about change – innovation and a culture of growth are critical.
  • Accountability – Cities that have re-forged the link to their citizens produce better outcomes. Vancouver and the Ruhr have a strong tradition of engaging civil society, and change on the ground has benefited from this. Hong Kong has not and finds itself more open to attack when it comes to changing the city.
  • Geography – Policy has limits. Size and location still matter greatly. Vancouver and Hong Kong are relatively successful due in part to their primacy and accessibility. They are global urban hubs and benefit substantially from this.

Collectively, the message from these cities is clear: the most successful have the powers and ambition to initiate change, the freedoms to think and be innovative with policy, and the mechanisms to hold local change to account.

Giving cities powers alone, however, cannot buck geography. The most successful also benefit strongly from their location, size and accessibility, and these are sometimes difficult areas to bring within the bounds of policy.

Allowing cities the tools to respond proactively to the conditions that they face will be central to their future health, and the health of the country as a whole.

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