Ten Take-Aways from the Last Day of the Metropolitan Solutions Conference 2016

Metropolitan Solutions 2016 (evna.in, Apr'16)By Renard Teipelke

While there is always a breadth of thematic areas and topics that is represented and discussed during the Metropolitan Solutions Conference (particularly as it coincided with the German Habitat Forum this year), I would like to provide ten (not necessarily related) take-aways that I found most relevant or revealing regarding the current state of integrated urban development.

  1. In many cases, regional or metropolitan planning is currently conceptualized and equipped with tools and powers that are primarily preventive. They are sought to draw boundaries around lower-level entities’ planning activities. The traditional assumption has been that such lower-level entities (i.e. cities, townships, etc.) want to grow at whatever cost to their neighboring environment (i.e. other municipalities, as well as previously undeveloped land). However, this assumption may actually not hold true anymore in all metropolitan areas, where surrounding municipalities may prefer to cater to a selected (higher-income) group of residents instead of increasing their housing stock and density, or making room for industries and services. This becomes a problem to regional planning, as it lacks necessary tools for enabling and initiating growth processes in situations where other entities do not drive such growth themselves.
  2. In order to take a proactive and productive role, regional planning needs to be democratically justified and financially independent. The availability of its own budget gives a regional planning entity leeway in negotiating with its member municipalities, while its democratic endorsement provides an enhanced platform for debate and decision making in contrast to the more common model of delegation, where lower-level member entities simply send one of their own to just represent their particular interest.
  3. Population disregards boundaries. In a metropolitan region, the highly dynamic use of different places and zones for work, live, and play by citizens poses a challenge to regional planning. This challenge is further aggravated as the cross-border activities by people are not only happening between local administrations within a particular region, but even across regional boundaries. With this in mind, regional planning entities – once formed – are only one element of a more effective approach towards aspects such as public transport planning or economic integration.
  4. Once a certain development has been achieved, people develop a high satisfaction paired with a low level of tolerance for further infrastructure or economic development measures. This abstract/in-principle objection is however contradicted by residents’ individual preferences for similar investments at the advantage of their immediate environment/neighborhood. Based on this situation, communication about proposed development measures needs to touch people’s everyday interests and concerns, even though the broader objectives are on a more strategic level.
  5. Analyzing the commuting within metropolitan regions has two key variables: distance and duration. As has been recently illustrated in an animated article by Süddeutsche Zeitung on commuting in Germany, only a multi-variable perspective reveals the ease or difficulty of commuting in different regions.
  6. Metropolitan governments provide the strong advantage of professionalizing services lower-level governments could not afford. Particularly smaller cities and towns can benefit greatly from regionally organized and executed services such as place marketing and promotion of economic development, as often their own capabilities and capacities would not allow for an effective outreach beyond the immediate region.
  7. The advantage of urban analysis tools is that they can provide a relatively quick snap shot at a city’s status quo and key activity areas beyond political controversies. However, the results of any such analysis have to be (re-) introduced into the political sphere to lead a political discussion that forms the foundation for a democratic planning process.
  8. While much is said about the huge investment potential into smart city technologies, there is a decisive difference between this potential and actual business cases. So far, many technologies, which had been tested in special pilot projects, could not be transferred into self-sustaining business models for upscaling.
  9. Smart city ‘smartness’ can also mean to let other cities go first. Cities may be well advised to not always act on the belief of the first-mover advantage and instead benefit from spending their limited resources only on smart city technologies, which have been successfully applied in a relevant setting.
  10. It may seem absurdly fundamental, but you need an educated populace before you can have a sensible discussion about smart city development. To put it simpler: In a city where a majority of people are struggling with the simplest skills (such as reading, basic mathematics, or the principles of logical reasoning), an engagement about making a city into a smart place may turn out to be very limited.
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