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National Systems of Cities and National Policies for Cities and Metros

Greg Clark


Cites and national development.

This month’s blog posts will focus on the key trends in how national governments are coming to terms with urban change in the context of the present challenges facing the world. These days, cities and metropolitan areas are widely regarded as being essential for national success. They are the hubs of population settlement, employment, & business, the centres of trade and innovation, the centres of infrastructure and logistics platforms, and the main clusters of cultural production and national identity. Cities also house the majority of the knowledge creation capability of nations, their centres of government and administration, diplomatic functions and they are, of course, decision taking, media, and communication centres.

Shift from Cities to Problems to cities as Assets.

As globalisation and climate change have become more significant drivers of change so National policies towards cities have begun to change over the past 20 years. But those who herald the end of the Nation State are very much wide of the mark. National Governments continue to exercise a major role in how cities are managed and resourced. In federal countries state and provincial level governments are the key players in urban and regional policies. Overall, whilst there have been several important reforms in the governance of some major cities, the vast majority of cities are still dependent upon the policies and resources of higher tiers of government for their operational frameworks. This is even more true at the metropolitan level where improvements in metropolitan governance have been observed, but they do not equate to the reversal of the governance hierarchies in any countries. So whilst it is increasingly possible to view the new global economic geography as a network of trading cities akin to the historical networks such as the Hanseatic League, there are very few cities that today have a form of governance that equates to a ‘city state’. What we see is a system of trade that is organised though cities, but supervised by nation states. Cites such Singapore, Hong Kong, Hamburg, New York, Zurich, where levels of self-government are high, are the exception rather than the rule.

City Governance systems.

This means that it is important to view City governance as system of different activities that includes the city government itself, but also the policies and actions of higher tiers of government and their intended, or unintended, consequences upon the city.  For many years, cities have argued that it is not just more power that is needed, but that national and state governments should modify polices that unintentionally undermine cities and foster sprawl and suburbanisation, or encourage only short term approaches to investment, or fail to apply integrated solutions to urban problems. In addition to National and State level governments many countries also now have para-statal and privatized organisations that are responsible for key elements of urban services and infrastructure. Whether any city can become a ‘smart city’ will depend substantially on its ability to achieve systems integration and inter-operability over a set of services which each have rather different ownership and governance arrangements.

National Urban and Regional Policies.

Not all National Governments have active urban policies, and not all governments have the same policies for all cities. Countries appears to move in and out if phases of having spatial policies, as our case studies will show. One interesting development has been the general shift from urban policies in the 1970s and 1980s which focused on tackling poverty and deprivation to a broader set of policies that are about encouraging development of various kinds.

At the same time, around the world National Regional policies and the tools used for effective regional development are evolving and changing considerably. Globalisation places new stresses on how national and sub-national economies perform, and is influencing the ways that national regional development policies are designed and executed. These are summarised in the table below.

Traditional Regional Policies

‘Regional Planning’

1950s to 1990s

New Regional Policies

‘Territorial Development’

1990s to present


Balance national economies by compensating for disparities

Narrow economic focus.

Increase regional development performance across the whole nation

Integrate Economic with Spatial, Environmental, and Social development measures.


Sectoral approach

Integrated development programmes and projects

Geog. focus

Political regions

Metro regions and economic regions


Lagging regions

All regions  - Metropolitan regions – connections between regions and across national borders


National economy

International economy and local economies


Subsidies, incentives, state aids, and regulations

Assets, drivers of growth/productivity, soft and hard infrastructures, skills and entrepreneurship, collaboration incentives, development agencies, co-operative governance, financial intermediation, investment incentives,  


National governments and sometimes regional governments.

Multiple levels of governments, private and civic actors. Implementation agencies. Collaborative governance. A major role for business and civic institutions.