Urbanismo e Dignidade Humana III – Challenges of politics, planning and governance



How can you view the politics, planning and governance in your area differently, through the concept of the “power cube” that Edgar Pieterse shows us?

Hello my name is Edgar Pieterse, I’m a professor in urban policy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa and I’m also the director for African Center for Cities. It’s a great pleasure for me to talk to you today on Politics planning and governance in the context of sustainable cities.

And what I hope to do today is to, first off, start by discussing what the challenges are associated with getting urban sustainability operationalized and that takes us straight to the question of politics, planning in governance. I’ll then explore specifically how we can think about urban politics, who are the key actors involved, and try and explain how the literature on governance, planning and power helps us to understand these things better. Towards the end, I will then briefly touch on what is happening in the city of Johannesburg and how they have dealt with the questions of politics, planning and governance and in particular, to deal with questions of and in particular to deal with questions of redistribution but also putting the city on more sustainable path.

The challenges is best understood as a tension or competing pressures on urban resources and urban governance. And these tensions are between powerful interest in this city and those who lack power or who lack resources in this city. Most prominently tends to happen in the domain of real estate where people want to use land value and real estate investments as a way of growing their businesses and their profits and their resources, versus investments in locating people without access to opportunities in this city on the same parcels of land.

Another pressure could be where people settle voluntarily or they settle by necessity but that land is not basically suitable for human habitation because of environmental pressures or vulnerabilities. These are two examples but they go to the heart of the contemporary governance context in these cities. And it is important that we recognize these value of using concepts around politics, governance, planning and power to make sense of these competing pressures.

So onto then the question of urban politics, now traditionally people thought of cities and urban politics as very, in a very simplistic way, that there are people in government who make decisions and there is the residents who are impacted upon.

And this is what we call in literature a duality, simplistic duality between those with power and those without. In truth, cities are more complex and political terrains are more complex and there are multiple relations at play, this is the key to understand.

So if we look at the diagram well see that there is one domain called “represented of political arenas” and this is the elected officers, the mayor, the council members and so forth. And they of course have a bureaucracy that underpins and executes the decisions that they take.

On the right hand side, still part of the formal system, is what you get in many cities, which are neo corporatist forums. These are planning rooms, where you have representatives from the private sector, from the trade unions, sometimes from the civil society and of course the local authority sitting around a table deciding on what’s the best long-term and short-term interests of the city. And this often tends to set priorities but also provide legitimacy to decisions taken in the formal arena.

If we then turn to civil society and the societal domain we can again differentiate between two kinds of actors. One, are people in what we call the domain of development practice. These are organizations at the grassroots, working on everyday problems working in slums, informal areas, in communities. To try and alleviate the acute poverty and, if you will, disempowerment that most urban residents face. So it can take form of a food garden, sanitation project and so forth. What binds them together is that they are all trying to meet a very practical need, they are driven by residents from these communities and they are trying to organize themselves so that they can become better at what they do.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have what we call social movements who believe that you need to, if you will, set the political arena alight. You need to use direct action to challenge dominant power relations to challenge the decisions taken by the formal authority and to continuously contest the legitimacy of their decisions because the impact of those decisions is not good for the city, as a whole.

Finally, the last domain within this relation framework of urban politics is what we call symbolic power.

This is the terrain of the media where we construct ideas called discourses that help society understand what is going on, how to make sense of things and what the various narratives are that compete in this city.

All the actors in this urban system weather they in the formal government, weather they in the organized private sector or labor or in civil society, have to actively use discourses to advance the interest to make their claims and to contest narratives about what the city is and who it is for.

So it is very important and increasingly, in an era of heightened media awareness, cell phone based social media communication and importance of mobilizing ideas in that form, this arena is more important than ever. Now this helps us to understand that it is useful to think in this relational way about how all urban problems are defined and mediated in the political arena.

Thinking about politics in this relational way takes us directly to the concept of governance. What governance refers to, is the process of relations between the formal state or the formal government and other actors in society.

And the governance concept helps us to understand the nature and the quality of those into actions. It is different to the idea of government because government, denotes the formal institutions that are endowed by law to regulate public affairs nominally in public interest.

Although as we know historically, and as we know from contemporary urban life, that this isn’t always the case. So governance helps us to begin to say who are the actors on the chess board, what is the relationships between them, what is the relative power and how can we understand the way that politics and planning mediate the way in which the urban system functions.

In order to really activate the concept of governance and in relation to the idea of relational politics, we have to pause at the concept of power. And this regard a very important French philosopher Michel Foucault? was really helpful.

And I will very briefly read a quote from one of his most important books and he says “we must cease, once and for all, to describe the effects of power in negative terms. It excludes, it represses, it senses, it abstracts, it masks, it conceals. In fact, power produces; it produces reality, it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belongs to this production.”

Now this quote by Michel Foucault? is important because it challenges us to not just think of power as something that is domineering, that’ll oppress us, but to recognize that in all relations in the governance field, in the urban landscape, there is a to and fro of power.

There is certainly intentions to use oppressive or domineering power but there is also, always resistance. And so, when we try and understand the quality and the dynamics of urban governance, we have got to pay very careful attention to what one can call the episodes of power; how power was exercised, and how power was resisted, and how power has always reconfigured in that dynamic process of contestation

One of the really practical ways in which we can think about this really abstract idea of Foucault, is to consider the work by very important Development economist at the Institute of Development Studies, in Sussex. They’ve introduced the idea of power cube. What they refer to in that regard, if we look at the diagram, is that you get different scales of power: local, national, global but you also get different arenas where power gets played: like you get spaces that are closed such as the neo corporatist forums over the closed-door council meeting or committee meetings.

And you get spaces that are created by the government that’s invited, where civil society gets invited to, but within the rules in the game set by local authorities.

Thirdly you get spaces that are created by civil society themselves. What they then say, and this is the third dimension, which is why they call it a power cube, is that you can then correlate with what they call visible power so that’s the obvious power, the local authorities endowed with certain power et cetera.

But also what you call hidden power. This is the deal making in the city. The way in which behind closed doors powerful actors can co-opt politicians and institutions or bureaucracies to get certain decisions made.

And very importantly the third dimension is invisible power. Now this is the problem where large numbers of people in the city at, if you will, at an interior level psychologically imbibe the certain identity.

And they believe that they are either of lower cast or of lower standing or that, as a woman they don’t have the same rights or as someone comes from minority ethnic group et cetera. This is what they call invisible power. And in all cities, you’ve got the co-mingling of these different kinds of power that operates in these different arenas.

And again, in this way we can begin to see that this city, the political arena and the way in which governance is exercised is always layered in these multiple ways.

And so we’ve got to pay very careful attention to what is the institutional form we are talking about, what is the nature of the conversion happening in that institutional arena and who is included and who is excluded and the power and the power cube framework helps us to begin that analysis

I want to turn to the question of planning.

Now ultimately, urban politics boils down to making decisions in a context of very scarce resources between competing priorities. These decisions can have short term, medium or long term impact. If we take, for example, infrastructure, these are very important decisions; because any infrastructural investment lasts 50 to a 100 years.

And so it is really important to understand the value of planning as a way of opening up or creating and awareness about what the implications are of certain decisions and  why those decisions are being made.

In this regard we can differentiate between different kinds of plans.

There is the most commonly known form of planning, which is spatial planning. This is where comprehensive territorial overview is provided of landscapes and land uses.This typically tends to be the form of a map, that is color coded with a legend and so forth. Then you get a more recent generation of planning which we call strategic planning or, in an even more recent iteration, growth management plans.

This is when you begin to relate what is happening in the regional economy to different land uses and to space. And you begin to try and map out how to growth of the economy impacts on the use of space and the changing nature of urban form. If we then move on from a strategic planning or growth management we can consider another kind of planning which is more bottom-up, more grassroots, and I call this spatial literacy.

This is when residents or representatives from local organizations engage in intersectional neighborhood level planning. In other words, they begin to try and figure out for themselves what are the different elements that they require in their neighbourhood to guarantee wellbeing and to ensure that there is a flourishing Expression of livelihoods in their area.

Now this is mirrored then, by what local authorities could do which is called precinct level planning and similarly a tries to underpin area based integrated development programs with a spatial framework.

All of these plans of course, ideally should interrelate and if we have participatory processes functioning well or optimized then in fact you get that into action correct across these different scales. Which deal with long term, medium term, the city wide scale right down to the neighbourhood the hostel.

So to conclude then, to draw all of this together, it might be useful and instructive to consider what has happened in the City of Johannesburg in South Africa over the last twenty years.

When south Africa democratized in 1994, it inherited a racially based fragmented local government system; a new white paper was required to integrate the system, and by the year 2000 were the local elections that happened in December, we had the establishment of a single metropolitan government for the city of Johannesburg covering about four million people.

Now this was significant, but it also presented acute problems for the city, because it inherited what we call a dual economy, a dual city, a dual society and the duality was physically manifest between the north and the south of the city.

In the north of the city, you had the aggregation of wealth and the middle class suburbs and the new financial centers of the whole country, in fact.

And in the south, you had these large spoiling townships that mushroomed out from Soweto to the to the southern extremes where orange farmers / a range of farms are located.

And the challenge that the city was faced with, was how do you support the economic heartland of the region because you derive you derive your rates based on that and rates account for almost 50% of your local income and at the same time deal with the popular demand for universal access to basic services and economic opportunities in the south.

And because of the long term neglect of infrastructural investment it was a mass of deficit on both the north and the southern side. And so the city was confronted with the problem how do you prioritize your investments in a way that can satisfy everyone and what is important to notice that in 2000 the city did not have a capital budget because it simply didn’t have the financial base.

And if we then review what Joburg had to do, it had to produce in the first instance of spatial development framework because that was required by law and that took a fifteen to twenty of you. But then it all so within two years produced something called the growth and development strategy, which tried to understand the political economy of the broader region, what its trajectories were over the long term and how it had to make decisions about what to invest in and where.

And it made all of that explicit on the basis of evidence and analysis and a participatory process. Moreover, then understood that the key to effective planning is to understand land markets and started to track decisions for land use applications and how real estate values were changing in regional economy.

And on the back of that, it was able to calculate what is the best return of investments so that you can ride the wave of real estate value addition, but at the same time, begin to knit the city together.

And so what they did was they said that actually the most important priority for us is not the north, and not necessarily the south, although there was a human rights imperative, but in fact, to create a hybrid zone that connects the two together, which the mayor, in 2011 called the corridors of freedom. And in that hybrid zone, at then said / at the inside we have got to find a different way of living, in another words, in a more dense form, but also mixed incomes living together and structured around public transport investments. This was radical, in a sense, that didn’t satisfy the north/ north’s old vested interests and it didn’t satisfy the electoral base of the ruling party the ANC in the south, because they wanted basic services to be concentrated in the south.

What they then did was, by carefully managing the rates base, they were able to grow the capital budget and they could do a little bit every way, but then within that prioritise these integrative zones.

Now it’s been five years of that being implemented, which is significant because the returns on that will only be seen can only be seen in 15 to 20 years time. And in some ways, one can see the feat of the Mayor in the last local election, as an expression of taking an unpopular decision of focusing on the long term.

Joburg really illustrates the complexity of planning, the multiple political pressures on the decision making and the centrality of leadership and leadership focusing on the long-term. But even when that happens, there is no guarantee, that that leadership will remain in power.