The quest for better city leadership


​​​​​​​Leading Cities: A Global Review of City Leadership by Elizabeth Rapoport, Michele Acuto, and Leonora Grcheva, Published in 2019 by UCL Press, University College London, Pages: 142, ISBN: 978-1-78735-545-3 (PDF)

In an era of rapid urbanization, for the first time in human history, more than fifty percent of the world’s population now lives in urban areas. Urban areas – cities and towns – of course, offer great potential to secure people’s life. Cities provide the opportunity for the exchange of ideas, and generate remarkable innovations in business, art, and ideas. Citizens in urban areas are often better off than their rural counterparts in relation to higher standards of health, sanitation, protection, education, recreation and so on. But urban advances have been uneven, and millions of people in marginalized urban settings confront daily challenges and deprivations of their rights. Cities around the world are also home to millions living in poverty.  Moreover, there has been a realization that, many of the problems the world facing today, like climate change, resilience and health inequality, are basically shaped by cities, given that cities account for over 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and 60% of the global consumption of energy, but also nearly 80% of the world’s GDP. It is evident that good urbanization may well turn out to be primarily an outcome of effective city leadership, and bad urbanization the product of poor city leadership. Hence, it is essential to understand how the cities are led, managed, and reformed.

The book “Leading Cities:  A Global Review of City Leadership” provides a much-needed overview of city leadership, and a starting point for future research on, and evaluation of, city leadership and its practice around the world. Drawing on research into 202 cities in 100 countries from six different regions of the world, it provides a broad, international evidence base grounded in the experiences of all types of cities, i.e. younger and older, smaller and larger, richer and poorer. The book offers a scholarly but also practical assessment of how cities are led, what challenges their leaders usually face, and the ways in which this leadership is increasingly connected to global affairs. Arguing that effective leadership is not just something created by an individual, the authors (Dr. Elizabeth Rapoport, Professor Michele Acuto and Dr. Leonora Grcheva) mainly focus on three elements of city leadership: leaders, the structures and institutions that underpin them, and the tools used to drive change.

The book consists of six chapters. The introductory chapter examines issues and challenges of city leadership. The term ‘City leadership’ has become a much-talked phrase frequently invoked by governments, businesses, academics, journalists and other commentators.  However, we have relatively little systematic information on who leads cities around the world and what political structures underpin this leadership. This chapter attempts to fill this knowledge gap. The next chapter reviews how the key concepts and debates of general leadership theory might shape a more systematic study of city leadership, and use this to build a conceptualization of city leadership that is applicable and understandable by both academics and practitioners. The authors argue that leadership is a complex and non-linear process of driving action which is distributed in nature involving three main components: individuals, the structures that underpin them and the tools that connect the two. It takes place locally, in a situated context, but is in dialogue with wider spheres of governance at national, regional and multilateral scales. City leadership is ultimately a catalyst for action, if not more precisely a catalytic process that brings together multiple elements of urban governance to identify and act on strategic priorities for the future of a city.

Chapter-3 sheds light on two of the elements of city leadership – actors and structures – presenting the research findings on individual city leaders and city government structures, their effectiveness, and their challenges. In order to compare institutional models of urban government across the cities studied for this research, the authors attempt to identify three types of city government structures: one-tier, two-tier and pluralized systems. Among the 202 cities, 63 per cent have one-tier governance structure, making this the most common form. Thirty-four per cent of cities have more complex government structure: 23 per cent have two-tiered structure and 11 per cent have pluralized structure. Analyzing experts’ survey responses on the topic of governance, it is found that the three governance challenges that most commonly affect urban leadership and governance are: coordination between different sectors and tiers of government, financial constraints and corruption, and lack of participation and accountability. This finding indicates that the problem of corruption and lack of transparency deserves serious consideration in urban governance and city leadership, particularly when dealing with matters of finance.

The fourth chapter begins with a discussion of the major policy issues that city leaders confront today on the ground, their relationship with the global challenges emerging from processes like Habitat III and the SDGs, and what these challenges mean for those who seek to ‘lead’ their cities. This chapter mainly draws our attention toward the top five categories of challenges cities might face in the coming days, as most frequently mentioned by survey respondents: 1) Mobility and urban connectivity –the capacity to connect people to jobs, services and markets, move goods and link ideas, cultures and service providers. 2) Demographic change, poverty and social inequality – the challenge of creating and maintaining social harmony among a diverse, and often unequal, concentration of people. 3) Spatial planning and housing – how to provide urban residents with an adequate supply of good quality affordable housing options. 4) Ensuring economic ‘vitality’ – the economic issues that city leadership has to confront ranging from the challenge of managing public finances, to the question of how to modernize and diversify city economies. 5) Environmental sustainability –issues and challenges for the urban environment such as pollution, congestion, waste, energy and resource use, sprawling urbanization, informal settlements, overcrowding and sanitation.

This next chapter focuses on the role that tools or instruments play in leadership processes. It examines how city leadership is translated into strategic interventions in cities and how these interventions address the types of challenges to effective leadership and governance elaborated in the previous two sections of the book. To do so, the authors focus on a particular type of tool/ instrument of city leadership – the strategic urban plan (SUP) – looking at how and where is it used, in what form, and how it contributes to effective city leadership. This chapter helps the reader understand how an emerging form of collaborative and deliberative long-term strategic planning acts to shape a sense of possible urban and metropolitan futures.

The concluding chapter of the book reconsiders the value of this conceptualization of leadership, and how we can build on the research findings to further develop a model for researching and evaluating city leadership. The authors argue that there is no template, model or one-size-fits all approach to city leadership. Effective city leadership includes not just the efforts of visionary individuals but the structures and plans that are essential to turning an individual’s vision into reality.  This, clearly, indicates the need for tailoring city governance to local needs and local dynamics, rather than simply searching for an ideal ‘model’ of leadership.  The key to effective city leadership, thus, is not only about the right mayor, the ideal plan, the reformed city council, but also about the way all the elements of city leadership come together, interact and create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The writer is an independent researcher.E-mail:

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