Aaron M Renn
Thursday 23 April 2015
The world’s cities are sprawling over their boundaries, fragmenting into smaller parts run by competing regional governments. But amalgamating them brings other problems ...
Welcome to the wonderful world of governing urban regions, where between fragmentation and amalgamation no one actually knows what the right-sized box for local government is or how to change it – but everyone can see the problems of most of the existing governance models.
Municipal fragmentation has been criticised for decades. In Cities Without Suburbs, his influential 1993 book, former Albuquerque mayor David Rusk argued that Rust Belt cities in the US failed to succeed in part because they were unable to expand, and found themselves hemmed in by a jigsaw puzzle of independent suburbs.
But with cities having become central to national governance in the 21st century, institutions like the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank are weighing in, too. Both recently sounded the alarm about the risks of urban fragmentation on a global level, for the developed and the developing world.
“Often, administrative boundaries between municipalities are based on centuries-old borders that do not correspond to contemporary patterns of human settlement and economic activity,” the OECD observed in a recent report. The thinktank argued that governance structures failed to reflect modern realities of metropolitan life into account.
Behind the report’s dry prose lies a real problem. Fragmentation affects a whole range of things, including the economy. The OECD estimates that for regions of equal population, doubling the number of governments reduces productivity by 6%. It recommends reducing this effect with a regional coordinating body, which can also reduce sprawl, increase public transport satisfaction (by 14 percentage points, apparently) and improve air quality.
The World Bank, meanwhile, is worried about the way rapid growth in developing cities has created fragmentation there, too. Metropolises often sprawl well beyond government boundaries: Jakarta, for example, has spread into three separate provinces. The World Bank calls fragmentation “a significant challenge in the East Asia region”.
Planners love efficiency, but even on a piece of paper it can be hard to know what size box to draw. As the OECD put it: “Even if policymakers try to reorganise local governments according to functional relations within urban agglomerations, it is often difficult to identify boundaries between functionally integrated areas.” In plain English: nobody really knows where to draw the lines.
As cities mushroom and fragmentation increases, that consensus is becoming more crucial – and harder to achieve – than ever.
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