London Skyline. Credit: emdoubleyou0 / Flickr

As the world becomes more urbanized, social inequalities, and environmental hazards threaten to undermine the traits that make metropolitan areas appealing. That means fewer economic and educational opportunities for marginal populations, less access to public services, and greater exposure to pollution and natural disasters.

Those are concerns expressed in the first publication from the Metropolis Observatory, a new project of Metropolis, which describes itself as the largest association representing major cities from around the world.

Metropolitan trends in the world also strikes a hopeful tone with recommendations on ways to make urban areas more inclusive and livable.

Specifically, the paper looks at prospects for moving toward governance structures that better coordinate planning and service delivery across the many jurisdictions that typically make up metropolitan areas. The implication is that better systems that work at a metropolitan scale are necessary to tackle a lack of education, housing, health care, water, food, and energy in poor areas, as well as to mitigate the life-threatening air pollution seen recently in Beijing, Delhi, Paris, and other metro areas.

The 12-page issue paper was published by Mariona Tomàs, assistant professor of political science at the University of Barcelona. The new Metropolis Observatory aims to act as a clearinghouse for the technical and political tools that city leaders need to implement a broader “metropolitan vision” for planning and governance.

Tomàs’ research focuses on metropolitan governance and urban policies. In the paper, she argues that new models are needed to combat the political fragmentation that exists in metropolitan areas in both the Global North and South. However, she also highlights major challenges in the move toward more coordinated metropolitan governance. Here are four of them:

Defining duties. Metro areas aren’t generally recognized as political entities, Tomàs writes. Where metropolitan-scale planning does occur, it’s typically related to “hard policies” such as urban planning, public transport, and infrastructure, leaving “soft policies” such as education, health, and social services fragmented across jurisdictional boundaries. What’s more, many metro-scale governance bodies are not able to make binding decisions. “Without this exclusive and binding nature,” Tomàs says, “it is very difficult to provide solutions on a metropolitan scale.”

Funding. Revenues are rarely raised or allocated at the metro level, making it difficult to solve urban problems that cut across local governments within an area. Where funding does exist, it often comes through government transfers, which limits autonomy. Tomàs cites the Greater London Authority as an example of a metropolitan institution that exists but remains largely dependent on subsidies from the British government. “Other fiscal instruments are required to develop inclusive policies based on sustainability and solidarity,” she says.

Public participation. Metro-scale governance bodies – where they exist – typically are not directly elected by the voters. They’re often comprised of municipal officials from different jurisdictions within the region. And where direct elections at the metropolitan level do occur, voter turnout has been low. Part of the problem is that citizens of a particular city or a suburb don’t necessarily identify as citizens of their larger metropolitan area as a whole. “We must rethink political participation in metropolitan areas,” Tomàs writes. “Creative ways must be found for the population to feel like part of the territory and have the tools to develop their status as citizens.”

Buy-in from government and business.  A big obstacle to creating metropolitan governance systems is resistance from other levels of government, such as municipalities, provinces, and regions. Tomàs says breaking through the opposition to metropolitan governance will require “acceptance by higher levels of government, which are those that legislate and determine their capacities.” The question of coordination extends to the private sector, she says. “The private sector must be involved in the development of urban policies: an approach that includes a plurality of stakeholders and is shared by all parties is necessary to make progress on the challenges facing metropolitan areas.”

This story originally appeared in Citiscope, a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. 

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David Hatch

David Hatch curates Citiscope’s CitiSignals feature – timely news updates on global urban trends and breakthroughs. He blogs about urban innovation at