Shaping the City: The Role of Urban Policy

Feb 15, 2015

"To claim the right to the city […] is to claim some kind of shaping power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and remade" – David Harvey(1)

Urbanization sometimes seems to be an almost mystic force that shapes, disrupts and ultimately derails our cities according to its own obscure logic. In the face of accelerating urban growth the city makes and remakes itself without taking much account of its inhabitants, planners or rulers. The sprawl of slums, the clogging of the transport system, the explosive expansion of urban populations; all these processes seem to harbour an element of uncontrollability. Hence the question arises to what extent we can effectively shape processes of urbanization. And what can we reasonably expect from urban policy in creating a more sustainable and inclusive urban future?

The Right to the City

The human geographer David Harvey has argued that the freedom to make and remake our cities after our heart’s desire is one of the most precious yet most neglected human rights(2). Exercising this ‘right’ encompasses both imagining and actively trying to achieve a more desirable urban future. Planning and mapping out a better, more sustainable, more inclusive city thus starts with thinking about the type of city we want to inhabit and the kinds of social relations that would prevail there. If anything, city planning is an exercise in conceiving and designing ways for people to live together. It therefore inevitably touches upon issues of social justice and morality. 

‘The right to the city’(3) is a phrase that is often used when it comes to envisioning and pursuing more ideal conditions of urban cohabitation. It functions as a slogan for urban justice movements all over the world and expresses the longing for greater inclusivity of disenfranchised city dwellers. In the context of Dhaka ‘the right to the city’ has, for example, been brought in relation to the limited access that slum dwellers have to amenities such as drinking water and electricity(4). For David Harvey, however, ‘the right to the city’ extends the right of accessing the resources that the city embodies. Rather it represents the freedom to radically change and reinvent the city; to cease power over the mechanisms of urbanization and the social and geographical inequalities that emerge in the process. Exercising the ‘right to the city’ thus necessarily depends on a collective manifestation of power. 

National Urban Policy 

In a recent report by UN-Habitat it was observed that much of the way in which cities progress, stagnate or become dysfunctional depends on the extent to which their evolvement is planned and coordinated(5). The formulation of a coherent ‘National Urban Policy’ (NUP) is pivotal in this aspect; both in shaping a vision of a more ideal urban landscape and in translating this vision into a set of linked actions. The articulation of urban policy is deliberately government-led, yet draws on insights that emerge through the dialogue and collaboration with multiple stake-holders who are keen to promote a more transformative, inclusive and resilient trajectory of urban development. Hence the task for urban policy designers is twofold: namely to mobilize political and institutional support, while at the same time developing the technical capabilities, legal frameworks and financial instruments to implement this commitment consistently.

Bangladesh is currently working on finalizing its National Urban Sector Policy, which has been developed in mutual consultation with various urban players including local government departments, NGOs and Community Development Communities. From onset the Bangladesh Urban Forum (BUF)(6) has provided a space for open discussions and feedback. In the process of these consultations and feedback rounds UPPR has been keen to foreground the specific needs and rights of the urban poor. 

Policy and Urban Poverty

Recognizing that urbanization is an unavoidable element of economic growth and that the urban poor are part and parcel of both processes, it goes without saying that a National Urban Policy should by all means explicitly target this segment of the urban population. For example, by designing strategies for including the urban poor in the provision of city services, or by developing a legal framework that guarantees safe employment conditions for poor workers. However, urban policy should not only be a matter of catering certain services to the urban poor. Instead all governing bodies should develop a critical awareness when it comes to assessing how certain policy decisions, concerning for instance the organization of public space or the impact of major economic investments, could possibly affect the urban poor.

Urban policy is ultimately a way of defining the relation between the state and its urban citizens and, as such, should be aimed at making sure that the interests of all urban citizens are equally represented and cared for.



1) This quote is from David Harvey’s book ‘Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution’ (2012). For an excerpt from this book see:

2)  Harvey argues so in the aforementioned book ‘Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution’ (2012).

3) The term ‘The Right to the City’ or ‘Le Droit a la Ville’ was first coined by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre in 1968. Since then the phrase has been used as slogan for urban justice movements all over the world.

4) See for example Shahadat Hossain’s article ‘The Production of Space in the Negotiation of Water and Electricity Supply in a Bosti of Dhaka’ (2011):

5) See the UN-Habitat report ‘The Evolution of National Urban Policies’ (2014):

6)  For more information on the Bangladesh Urban Forum see:

7)  For an overview of UPPR’s policy recommendation see the report ‘Targeting Urban Poverty Reduction: Policy Institutions for Inclusive Urban Governance’: 

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