Future of Cities: Global Studies of Local Futures

Emily MoirAuthors: Greg Clark, Chair of JLL Cities Research Center, with Emily Moir

In this series of blogs and the essay, The Future of Cities: what is the global agenda?, we explore the future of cities. Whilst previous posts have examined how national governments are thinking about their cities’ futures, we now turn our attention to supranational organisations, and their activity in the future of cities space.

Many supranational organisations – bodies such as the OECD, UN and EU – are studying national or regional systems of cities, reviewing and diagnosing their present challenges, generating ideas, and producing recommendations for the local and national policymakers planning their futures. The World Bank has been a particular pioneer. In its 2009 World Development Report, the Bank identified for the first time the concept of ‘systems of cities’ – the idea that all cities exist in an interdependent national or continental system, whose size and relationships determine each city’s functions, specialisations and opportunities for manoeuvre.[i] Since that time, it has also been carrying out a series of Urbanisation Reviews – major analytical projects that aim to give policymakers as full a picture as possible of the effects of urbanisation and a rigorous understanding of the policy decisions which can obtain the best possible results from the process.[ii] The Reviews assess urbanisation across five areas: economy, welfare, demography, the physical environment and administration, and have been undertaken in more than 15 nations to date, with more reviews planned in the future. Although bespoke findings are published for each nation, the Bank’s flagship consolidated report identified that many middle income countries must focus on land use planning, connectivity, inter-jurisdictional coordination and the attraction of infrastructure finance in order to create an efficient and productive urban system that will propel them into the higher income bracket in future.[iii]

Jakarta SkylineThe OECD engages in a similar type of urban assessment through its Territorial Review programme, which since 2001 has offered unprecedentedly thorough diagnosis and recommendations to its members at the national, regional and metropolitan levels. Within the last five years alone, diverse cities and metropolitan areas including Venice, the Gauteng city region and Antofagasta have all been reviewed. Typical recommendations include adopting a focus on innovation, recognizing the importance of cultural diversity, and developing infrastructure policies to encourage mobility and modal integration. Like the World Bank, the OECD emphasises that cities should be considered in a more integrated way, and on a national level, via a national urban strategy that can achieve coherence across different sectoral policies.

In 2011, the European Commission also undertook a reflective study on the future of the European Union’s cities, and sought to identify good practices and policies which could serve as inspiration at a local, regional, national or European level.[iv] The process culminated in the production of a report: Cities of Tomorrow: Challenges, Visions, Ways Forward. The report advances familiar EU values for cities, envisioning the European city of tomorrow as a democratic and diverse city with high levels of social cohesion, strong environmental credentials and an engine of economic growth.  It argues that cities have to adopt a more holistic model of sustainable urban development, and must develop governance systems which are capable of combining formal government structures with flexible informal governance structures.[v]

Other supranational bodies looking to influence the future of cities include UNICEF, whose Urban Planning & Programming team has worked to give more visibility to the urban poor and to spotlight people-driven solutions that can be scaled up by governments. The World Economic Forum, whose Future of Urban Development initiative, is leveraging the leadership platform of the Forum to provide a setting for mayors, ministers, the private sector, and experts to jointly think through and develop solutions for major urban challenges. The initiative supports the collaborative proposal of new models for infrastructure, urban design, mobility and energy.[vi]

Supranational organisations and national governments are not the only institutions leading the thinking on the future of cities. Private sector businesses and academic institutions are also investigating the future of cities. Finally of course, cities themselves (including local policy makers, leadership organisations and businesses) are thinking about and planning for their own futures.


[i] Clark and Clark (2014) Nations and the Wealth of Cities: A New Phase in Public Policy.
[ii] Cities Alliance: Nigeria Urbanization Review  
[iii] World Bank Group: Colombia Urbanization Review : Amplifying the Gains from the Urban Transition
[iv] European Commission: Cities of Tomorrow  
[v] European Commission: Cities of Tomorrow, challenges, visions, ways forward
[vi] World Economic Forum

About the Author

Greg Clark has spent more than two decades putting his passion for cities to good use, by advising and mentoring global cities, firms and institutions. He has worked with over 100 cities around the world and holds senior advisory roles at international bodies including the OECD, Brookings Institution, ULI, and the Future Cities Catapult. A prolific author, Greg has published ten books to date on cities and investment practices, with three more in the pipeline for 2016-17. And as Chairman of The Business of Cities research and intelligence group, Greg leads a small high calibre team that advises and reports on global trends and changes in cities. In his academic life Greg is Hon Prof of City Leadership at UCL and co-chairman of the UCL City Leadership initiative, Visiting Professor at Strathclyde University, and Global Fellow at LSE Cities. He has received international awards for his work from cities as far afield as Barcelona, Brisbane, London, and Toronto and in 2016, Greg was honoured by HM Queen Elizabeth II with a CBE for his services to city and regional economic development. Meanwhile, outside of the day jobs, Greg is an avid tennis player, wine enthusiast, and lifelong follower of Arsenal FC.

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