— Article by Julia Kozlova

The city size is greatly influenced by the stress of urbanization. Cities produce GDP and accommodate the labour force, cities attract people, especially from rural areas, being places full of working positions and better conditions of living. Consequently, cities are growing. Growing so fast that governments lost in attempts to control it. Densified communities have mostly a positive image, but at higher rates, it provokes more pedestrian casualties, more reduced ecosystem quality and harmful for health, loss of privacy. That is why cities tend to grow horizontally – urban sprawl. Unfortunately, no one can stop the city nor the population from rising, but it needs to be under control. In an anarchic, uncontrolled way, it leads to illegal land appropriation and the growing of socially fragile areas, slums – the epicentre of poverty and crime.

However, country size also matters for the relationship between city size and national economic growth – small cities work best in relatively small countries, megacities in big countries. Medium-sized cities are only detrimental to economic growth in tiny countries. Megacities are considered to be a force to aggregate economic dynamism in the most populous countries. Though, the fastest growing cities nowadays are not those megacities located in developed countries but those medium and small ones because of their demographic importance and potential (there is a proposition that the highest fertility rates in the world are for poor, rural countries).

The urban policy has focused on the problems of exclusively large metropolitan areas, although building new cities in developing countries could allow them to grow not in a spontaneous way but regulated one. If small and medium cities realize their potential, then they should change the urban agenda for developing countries.

The United Nations Urban Agenda implemented the trend for city enhancement – sustainability. Cities seemed to be changed with regards to new technologies to make them comfortable, safe, inclusive and prosperous.

However, major metropolitan areas with their rich heritage seem often hermetic to change. They limit themselves to preserve their status quo within the established rules and procedures. There are always obstacles to be found: conflict with citizens and property lords, heritage buildings that couldn’t be touched, old infrastructure and others. For instance, it is such an issue with old infrastructure (underground wiring, steam pipes, and transportation tunnels) that already does not fit modern needs and cannot be replaced with a new one easily. Hundreds of cities are already challenged with replacing decades-old infrastructure as well as installing high-speed internet leaving some areas in major cities with limited access to the internet. Funding for new infrastructure projects is limited, and approval processes can take years. Reconstruction or commutation of infrastructure is complicated and very expensive, that is why sometimes it is easier to build new communities from scratch.

City redevelopment also has other adverse effects. The gentrification of old industrial areas in city centre areas with high-density apartments usually deals only with high-end buyers, and it can trigger increasing house prices in the neighbourhood areas and changing their social status consequently. In other words, the redevelopment of the city centre could make lower-income citizens unwelcome.

In the era of globalization and sustainability, radical shifts are needed for cities to reject the worst part of them and strengthen their best perspectives. Change is inevitable; the challenge is to manage change in order to ensure a beneficial outcome.

So, to extend a potential urban government historically see three ways of urban development in the context of its growth: city renovation, city expansion and greenfield city.

To sum up, here is the results of my research upon this subject in the table:

 City RenovationCity ExpansionGreenfield city
Historical exampleLondon Great FireCity Wall FallWashington DC
EconomicMedium Expensive Medium investment interest Local investors High taxes Fast high profitMedium Expensive Low investment interest Local investors Agglomeration economy Low taxes Medium  profitVery expensive High investment interest Local and Foreign investors Tax relief (SEZ) Long-term high profit
PoliticEasy management Local interest Govern on municipal level Could be provided by private commercial sector exclusively New Urban Agenda Support Right-sizingEasy management Govern on regional Could be provided by private commercial sector exclusively New Urban Agenda critics Land BankComplex management High public engagement Government should be involved in the process Decentralisation of power High degree of political autonomy World cooperation World attention but not mentioned in New Urban Agenda Land Bank
SocialHigher density Historical centre for touristsSlums Combat Lower density PovertyMixed-use Social housing
LegalStrict rules of construction Heritage Urban ZoningIllegal settlementsUndefined law Special projects
ThreatsOld infrastructure renewal costs Designed for high-end buyers onlySlums Low-density UnemploymentUtopia Ghost city
OpportunitiesMixed functionality City RenewalSlums fight                 City centre DecentralisationSmart city Sustainable city Eco city

One thing is for sure: new housing should not be built exclusively in those cities and regions where there is most pressure on the property market. Furthermore, land-related obstacles must also be eliminated at the same time. In particular, this means establishing new organisational links between housing and urban planning: local urban development plans need to be transferred to intercommunal structures. Besides, the proportion of affordable housing among these new dwellings must be increased. This depends on two conditions: first, that the sustainability of funding for social housing is not compromised, and second, that the land-related production costs of home-buying schemes are more effectively reined in.

This situation owes a great deal to the issue of land availability, therefore a matter for local urban development plans and local political decisions.

As we can see, there are many factors involved in urban policy decision making. To simplify them,  I propose the urban development function that could be described as:

Urban Function:

f = {S;P;E;L;Ec},


S – social stability;

P – political power;

E – economic profit;

L – legal allowance;

Ec – ecological sustainability.

and Urban Development Function:

∆f = {I;Pr;D;P;In} / {Lr;Pv;Un},


I – investment funding;

Pr – pressure on property market;

D – density of population

P – political power;

In – industry centre;

Lr – legal regulation;

Pv – poverty;

Un – unemployment.

These functions describe the main factors of horizontal urban development and their interconnections through direct and indirect proportions.

Cities desperately need competent and accountable governance that could make cities resilient, organic, inclusive, socially cohesive, flexible and sustainable. All these ambitions and principles are formulated in the United Nation’s Agenda 2030 and the New Urban Agenda. 

However, nor Agenda 2030 nor the New Urban Agenda allude to new cities. Sustainability refers only to the conservative concept of city development. Because of the tendency of decision-makers to be on utopian high, beyond real-to-life conceptions that could be easily applied and adapted to the existing system, new cities project seem to be too bold. In addition, plenty of new utopian projects and unsuccessful modern new cities made the idea of horizontal urban development is unpopular and widely criticized. 

Though, countries with a higher urbanization index continue building new cities (China, India, African countries, etc.). Being excluded from the international urban discourse, new city developers do not have any guidance but an intense aspiration. It revives the planned city concept making the modern new city concept innovative and unbeaten at the same time.

However, within exercising urban projects, there are conflicting aspects of sustainability that could be met: political, legal and economic.

The diffusion of powers in urban policymaking is widespread: beyond the formal institutions as federal, state, and other local governments but also political participation of non-governmental actors, the main goal of whom is to gain their powers. In this case, political interests in urban policy are multilateral and usually contradictory. In this case, projects float in an undefined realm balancing between legal restrictions and economic interests.

It requires responsive urban planning and governing based on reciprocal dialogue, including adopting relevant laws and regulations. However, the legal system faces many challenges throughout rapid urbanization. Urban law is changing as fast as cities grow. Cities without proper urban legislation lead to the rise of urban pathologies that do not give a country’s to grow economically and socially. Legal norms need abstraction to set general reliability to the country’s context. Central regulations should be more open to fit better local and international policy. Inflexible legislation does not let urban development to happen, limiting its possibilities and creative and innovative solutions.

However, even if the city project is well-governed and framed with a proper legislation base, a project, city development linked directly to economic growth and investment interests.

The better way to balance risk in urban projects is a multi-layered funding approach that combines public and private sector efforts.

Analyze of three main concepts of horizontal urban development from these political, legal and economic perspectives (reconstruction of existing territories, city expansion or creation of new living areas on abandoned, non-exploited or misused territories), shows that they do have negative effects, but their potential is incredibly high. If modern new cities could realize their potential, then they should change the world urban agenda, especially for developing countries.

Urban pathologies caused by urbanization provoked by spontaneous development while greenfield cities are planned communities and regulated by their nature.

The lack of international dialogue on the sustainable concept of new city agenda invokes fails on achieving main developers’ and investors’ goals in such projects leaving those cities unsettled. Those ‘ghost cities’ are not only significant financial loss but also a waste of land resources.

In this case, it seems that regard of leading international organizations to planned communities and its challenges is on-demand and requires a reflection in primary sustainable development documents.

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