GUEST BLOG: Global or Local? Where can science influence urban policy best?

Sam Lane is a Research Assistant at UCL City Leadership Lab. You can follow on Sam on Twitter: @SamKeithLane

Urban policy seldom exists, at least under that title. Many regard urban policy as city or municipal government policy which covers issues from land-use zoning to waste collection, and education to healthcare services. But is this where science can influence urban policy best?

At a national level, few countries have a national urban policy and these are often criticised for not focusing on enough of the issues that urban areas face, or that they are too focused on the city economies rather than the citizens. In the absence of a national urban policy, where do researchers go with their findings on the urban? Very often, different civil servants across departments read chapters on urban research from a variety of global reports but this information remains siloed in these departments.

Thinking about global policy interfaces, many reports are produced which include, albeit on a very small scale, chapters or sections on urban issues, such as those in IPCC and IPBES reports. Are these the only avenues for scientists to influence the urban at a global scale?

Fundamentally, can anything be done to address this lack of an effective science policy interface at all levels?

A high-level expert panel with academics from a wide range of disciplines and geographies was commissioned by UCL and Nature Sustainability and convened in London for 2 days in July to discuss some potential solutions for science to engage with urban policy. The first critical juncture is to understand what science is suitable for urban policy. It should be recognised that science has influenced urban policy and urban issues throughout time, with notable examples including the work of Joseph Bazalgette in tackling urban sanitation in London. Since then, the body of knowledge on the urban and the number of people studying it has increased dramatically.

However, this knowledge is not currently coherent or connected. Very often urban researchers do not consider themselves as such, but rather a planner/economist/geographer/artist who studies the urban. Arguments have been made to collate this body of knowledge together to present a system view of urban knowledge. This might indeed be the beginning of a new field of urban science which seeks to integrate the knowledge systems from different disciplines. This could also provide a single platform for the urban academic community and a touchpoint with a science policy interface.

Science policy interfaces occur at different scales and with varying degrees of success. Firstly, when considering urban policy, it might be best to start with the local or municipal governments. The increasing autonomy and presence of cities as global actors upsets the international system of nation states, so they should be recognised as legitimate access point for science advice.

Very often, local governments are not funded to engage directly with science and research communities and the competency for science engagement normally falls at the national level. However, there are examples where local universities have fostered strong partnerships with cities, for example in Belo Horizonte to tackle urban food poverty. Some cities have created advisory boards/units/departments for innovation which include engagement with the science community, such as the Mayor’s Office for New Urban Mechanics in Boston.

With this in mind, the process for engagement is still very sporadic, at best, or non-existent at worst. Related to this are the city networks which are growing size and capacity all the time, including: C40, ICLEI and UCLG. These networks have scientific and research programmes and act as an interface to engage directly with the local governments and share best practices, as well as connecting knowledge systems at a global scale.

At a national level, urban policies are vacant and sporadic. Some countries might be fortunate enough to have a ministry or department responsible for urban policy, or maybe just a minister, but very few have a national urban policy. Reasons for this could range from cities governing their own issues to national governments not recognising specific policy is needed.

Alternatively, comprehensive national urban policies exist, for example in China, but the scale and scope for science engagement is limited. Regardless, there is not a clear point of entry for the urban research community at a national level. Very often urban researchers are siloed into their disciplines which might have access points to separate departments, e.g. urban health and a Department of Health. Governments might have offices, committees, commissions or ministers which engage regularly with the science community but these are often broad and cover a wide variety of issues. Pursuing an agenda for science on urban issues is seldom discussed despite its connection to many other problems which science can tackle, e.g. safety, climate change, transport, public health, resilience.

Globally, the urban voice is getting louder with the recognition of cities in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals – number 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities, the New Urban Agenda and AR5 in the latest IPCC report. These international agendas are often scientifically rigorous, albeit politically skewed at times, and offer opportunities for science to engage with the global agenda setting on urban policy. However, translating this policy to action is often limited with nation states unclear on implementation methods, or certain states ignoring the calls for action as irrelevant. Lately, some cities have sought to bypass national positions on these agreements as they are at odds with a protectionist state when they are pursuing a globalised world at a local scale.

This fragmented picture of urban policy operating at different scales is not optimistic but there is a reason to be upbeat. Increasingly frustrated with existing systems, scientists are taking matters into their own hands and seeking new opportunities. Whether this is the creation of a new urban knowledge discipline – drawing together the existing wealth of research on the urban, or proposing new interfaces at different scales.

While national governments are still slow to take up a national urban agenda, for now the best avenue for scientists to influence policy will be through local university partnerships or global city networks. Cities often have budgets to address urban challenges and can be the most important authority on addressing urban challenges at a local level. The UCL-Nature Sustainability panel unanimously agreed that tackling urban challenges is best achieved at the local level where knowledge systems are best understood, while global and national platforms are best for agenda setting and identifying trends. There are opportunities for science to influence urban policy at all levels, but it is arguably most effective at the local level where research can be tested and experimented with at appropriate scales.

If the best place to influence urban policy is at the local level, what can a science adviser do to support this? During the UCL-Nature Sustainability Panel, panellists discussed what characteristics are needed for effective urban experts. They determined that it is important to be curious, well-connected to different stakeholders at different scales, be an expert in their own field with an appreciation of other disciplines, while being charismatic enough to foster change. These lofty ideals are subjective but provide a guideline from the perspective of urban researchers who would be a key stakeholder.

Thinking about the interfaces to engage with, there are many different models currently in play. The Greater London Authority has an Intelligence and Analysis Unit which acts as an evidence-based office to inform policy. The Gauteng City Region Observatory (GCRO) in Johannesburg is a quasi-think tank partnered with universities and the provincial government whereby they regularly conduct research at the local level. Dublin City Council and Maynooth University have developed a Data Dashboard for the city and is an example of a science and technology project which can inform urban policy. These models of science offices, city observatories and science projects illustrate the range of opportunities for science advisers to engage with urban policy. Not all are applicable to each city or region but options are out there and examples of best practice are developing rapidly. 


For more from Sam Lane follow him on Twitter: @SamKeithLane