Configuring Urban Development Strategies; what can we learn from Capital Cities, Fringe Cities, and Regional Hubs?

Christine Richter (1)

By Christine Richter

The panel invited speakers to present on five aspects of urban development strategies in Indian, South African, and Latin American cities: the main discourses  in the city about its development from the perspective of the main urban coalition as well as countervailing groups, the actor networks that drive development, the kinds of spatial knowledge used in these processes, infrastructures used to produce such knowledge, as well as how actor networks have steered the outcomes of urban development strategies in the research cities. The panel was part of a presentation on the final results of Chance2Sustain, an international research project financed by the European Union.

Presentations provided rich insights into these issues, albeit each emphasizing some aspects more than others. This was partially due to time limits, but also reflects the great diversity in empirical contexts.  The session offered an impressive body of knowledge about urban development in Durban, Chennai, New Delhi, Kalyan Dombivli, Lima, and Guarulhos.  As such the session kept its promise of addressing urban development strategies not only in capital cities, but also regional hubs.  The final presentation by Terada from UN Habitat offered a recent global picture of urbanization, along with the key challenges to be addressed in future development strategies.

Despite the diversity in empirical contexts and the multiplicity of aspects of urban development addressed, three common and closely related themes can be identified, which emerged implicitly across presentations and discussion and which may provide impetus for future analytical inquiry.  These are by no means exhaustive and based on reflection by the author of this report.

The first theme of “duality” in urban development became manifest in various ways.  Sutherland closed with the question of whether Durban is actually a “tale of two cities,” a tale containing an ongoing dialogue between formal service provisions and informal growth.  Duality also is manifest in the inequalities between “rich” and “poor” in all cities, especially striking in the case of water provision in Lima.  There is also the persistent duality between strategies as written on paper versus their translation from discourse into urban development practice and outcomes.

A second theme pertains to the role of politics and the role of more or less informal urban actor coalitions in the translation process from development strategy to practice and outcomes. The contestations between technical framing in discourse, on one hand and political framing, on the other, were most poignant in Sutherland’s presentation on Durban, where especially housing provision plays a major role in election campaigns and in support of political agendas.  For the case of Chennai, Denis pointed to the role of opportunistic alliances led by individuals depending on their respective capabilities and networks in creating a rather single-scope, project based style of urban development with actor associations that fluctuate in space and time. But the theme of informality and fluctuation in actor alliances was more implicit in presentations.  More emphasis was put on the question of citizen participation in urban development. In light of decentralization efforts characterizing all countries included in the research program, presentations focused on the role of municipal government vis-à-vis state level actors and civil society.  The discourse of decentralization on paper finds little or contradictory reflection in practice.  For example, opportunities for citizen participation at a broader scale are limited in Durban, where participation is enacted more through local and fragmented initiatives. Tools for participation such as the Right to Information law in India are also deployed in more individual and situation-specific modes. The emphasis on “citizen participation” introduced a distinction between (municipal and state) government or the planners and strategizers, including corporate interests, on one hand, and the citizens, on the other. The specifics of “informal actor coalitions” as drivers of urban development became somewhat submerged behind this duality. Presenters and audience discussed, how a deeper engagement with the nature of not only formal, but also informal, actor coalitions is important to interrogate how global discourses, strategy documents, and formal law become mediated by these associations and translated into urban development practice.

Finally, the third theme pertains to the role of (digital) spatial knowledge production and use in urban development. The presentations included an impressive number of detailed maps and maps in the making.  However, there was too little time to elaborate on the stories these maps have to tell. Digging into the process of the maps’ construction, including actors involved, contestations over the map composition and use, and the technologies and infrastructures deployed holds the promise of gaining further insights into the various aspects of urban development addressed in the panel as well as into the nature of and contestations between actor networks. A closer look at the technologies involved can offer insights also into the associations between government and private industry, especially consultants and hard- and software providers. Deconstructing the stories of these maps and treating them as forms of discourse may be fruitfully exploited to further analyze the large amount and depth of knowledge on urban development in the research cities presented on this panel.

Christine Richter is lecturer at the Department of Human Geography, Planning and International Development Studies (GPIO) at the University of Amsterdam and a PhD candidate at the University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands.