Better Laws for Growing Urban Populations

Fordham advises on legal frameworks for urban development at UN Habitat meeting in Barcelona.

Facing an urban population growth of three billion people in the next 50 years— and varied, disproportionate legal solutions to governing cities and regions—the United Nations has invited a series of global experts, including the Fordham Urban Law Center, to help explore and create models for livable and productive cities.

The most recent Global Experts Group Meeting in the run-up to the fall 2016 United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (HABITAT III) took place December 17–18 in Barcelona, with Urban Law Center Executive Director Nisha Mistry advising on the balance between public and private interests in urban planning and development—areas that often fall prey to short-term and narrow influences.

Although Mistry says cities cannot plan for vast growth without considering private interests, sacrificing the public’s stake often proves detrimental to the long-term function of a metropolis.

“When things go badly in cities, it’s easy to point the finger at ‘bad governance,’ poor capacity-building, or corruption. However, good regulatory design and thoughtful laws go a long way,” Mistry said. “This kind of scrutiny of legal frameworks has not been undertaken by UN-Habitat before now; the agency realizes that where we are today in many cities has been a problem of inadequate design and implementation of laws.”

Critical to at least three of the 17 sustainable development goals announced last September, cities are already responsible for two-thirds of the world’s energy consumption and 70 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, yet they generate 80 percent of global GDP.

Part of the fate of cities rests in their regulation and governance, whose frameworks have embodied some key flaws, according to Mistry. These include an inability to distinguish between situations present in cities of different sizes; a reliance on weak external structures and resources; the idea of ‘capacity building’ as a universal solution; and a failure to match practice with processes necessary for implementation.

In the countdown to Habitat III, nearly 200 national governments as well as cities, the private sector, and civil society will meet regularly to review and evaluate prevailing models of physical planning and urban development and identify technical and political paths for developing and implementing effective alternative frameworks. They will also analyze the UN-Habitat Governing Council’s international guidelines on urban and territorial planning and the next steps to incorporating them in laws at the national and sub-national levels.

According to the World Bank, the top five percent of cities has obtained as much foreign direct investment as the bottom 95 percent of cities combined, and the top 10 percent of cities achieved 13.5 percent annual GDP per capita growth, compared with 4.7 percent in an average city. Mistry is cautiously optimistic that more responsive legal frameworks have the potential to help level out these data.

“We know that urban law sets the conditions for how cities develop. We know that the resources and assets of metropolitan areas have not been reaching every demographic,” she said. “We’re exploring ways in which legal frameworks can realistically fulfill policy goals in areas like inclusive design, infrastructure, land use, and economic development. This is not an academic exercise.”

–Adrian Brune