The multilevel governance of urban growth: a cross-national comparison

Last May, I sketched out an idea for a research project that would look at what senior governments could do to ensure that those who make decisions about the growth of North American cities do a better job of respecting the environment. That idea has now matured into a research proposal. In this entry, I’ll summarize the proposal and provide a link to the full proposal.

Here’s the summary:

My proposed research will shed new light on a major, but much-neglected question: What can we learn from Europe and each other about how best to achieve sustainable growth in North American cities?

Most students of city development agree that the way our cities grow and change has a major impact on the environment. An environmentally friendly city is one that is relatively compact, with ready access to fast and convenient public transportation, and with houses, shopping and public facilities located so that that residents and workers can get around easily without having to rely mainly on automobiles.

The priorities of land developers and consumers often fail to reflect these concerns. In North America, the job of balancing environmental considerations against the demands of land developers and consumers falls largely to municipal councils and most councils find it very difficult to achieve a balance that is favourable to the environment.

Many fail repeatedly because local councils are not, in general, able effectively to resist development interests. Finding an approach to urban growth that more effectively balances the interests of development companies and immediate consumer demands against a wider, longer-term public interest in a sustainable environment will be a major policy challenge in the decades to come.

If local governments cannot control land use, the only alternative is a meaningful degree of land use regulation at another level of government. Although economic and consumer pressures favouring urban sprawl are world-wide, Europe has, in general, been more successful in planning compact cities, well-served by public transportation, than North America. One of the reasons, as I learned in a previous study – the first one listed below – is that land development interests exercise a great deal of influence in local politics, but are relatively small players at the national level. The sustainability of European cities benefits from the fact that many urban development regulations are laid down by national governments.

Though planning scholars are aware that there are significant differences between European and North American urban planning practices, there have been few careful, comparative studies. Political scientists understand the value of such studies, as witness the large political science literature on comparative European, North American and developing-world national politics, and another significant literature embodying cross-national comparisons of other aspects of city politics.

Though the management of urban growth offers similar opportunities to learn by comparing and contrasting the planning and development practices of European and North American cities, scholars concerned with urban development politics and policy have done little to develop those fields of study. My research will address that gap, with a three-city comparative case study of the multilevel governance of urban growth in three jurisdictions that have tried, to some degree, to centralize the management of urban growth: Metropolitan Portland, Oregon; the Greater Toronto Area, and Greater Hamburg.

I will focus my research on three questions: How is the development of new subdivisions managed? What is the overall condition of municipal infrastructure? How well served by public transit is the urban area? Answers to these seemingly simple questions will throw up a wealth of political and administrative complexities, but they are sufficiently focused to keep the overall comparison both meaningful and manageable.


The study in which I pointed out the advantages of having more urban planning authority at higher levels of government was:

Christopher Leo, “City politics in an era of globalization.” In Mickey Lauria, ed. Reconstructing urban regime theory: Regulating local government in a global Economy. Sage, 1997, 77-98. You can upload your own copy here. (To skip academic debates and cut to the chase, start with “Global homogenization” at the bottom of p. 5.)

The study that focused my attention on the significance for urban planning of state government intervention was:

LEO, C. (1998). REGIONAL GROWTH MANAGEMENT REGIME: The Case of Portland, Oregon Journal of Urban Affairs, 20 (4), 363-394 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9906.1998.tb00428.x

To look at the full proposal and the references click here and here.

2 responses to “The multilevel governance of urban growth: a cross-national comparison

  1. I am glad I took the time to read this piece. Urban sprawl is an issue that affects a variety of different factors in society, I am very interested in reading the rest of your research into this matter. You take one American city, one Canadian city, and then one European city in an effort to compare and contrast? This is all something I was for the most part unaware of and now I find I want to know more.

  2. Pingback: Looking for a good summer job? | Christopher Leo

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