Skip to main content
REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis - Skyline of New York's Lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center is pictured during sunset. April 7, 2016.
Metropolitan Revolution

Governing the modern city


In an increasingly urban world, tackling global challenges means working in cities.

More than half of the global population already lives in cities, with nearly 2.7 billion more expected by 2050. Governing cities in ways that maximize economic and social opportunity—and minimize risks to the environment and social cohesion—will be the central challenge facing nearly all countries over the next century. Yet, urban governance in the 21st century is an increasingly complex enterprise.

Certainly, public policy has always been carried out at various levels: in small and large cities, metropolitan areas, regions within countries or states within large nations, and even beyond the nation-state to the “continental” level—the most ambitious example of which is the European Union. At all these levels, public policy interacts with business and civil society—philanthropies, universities, NGO’s—yielding a network of governance that is not only multi-level, but also multi-channel and multi-sectoral. This “networked” mode of governance has only expanded in recent years, leading to increasingly complex institutional arrangements.

At the same time, the world is getting more complicated and interconnected—trends such as climate change, globalization, the digital revolution, and increased pressures around migration affect all regions. These modern challenges often require solutions that are multi-disciplinary and adaptive, which cities are well positioned to model. In countries throughout the developed world, fiscal and political turmoil at the national level has pushed greater responsibilities down to the regional and city-level—whether by design or by default. To get things done, cities are being creative, often circumventing the constraints of traditional governmental bureaucracies through greater collaboration with the private sector and civil society.

Yet, spend time in any city and you will quickly find that the understanding of how these governance networks actually work, even at the highest levels, is opaque at best. Urban innovation won’t liberate us from fiscal constraints and debt burdens, and the flows of funding from national and regional governments to cities—for everything from education, to infrastructure, to social programs—remain difficult to map even for those leading city governments. And finances are only part of the story: in every policy arena, the reality of where and how decisions are made—and by whom—is of critical importance. Moreover, from a public policy perspective, it is of course necessary to assess the benefits of governance arrangements from a broad national perspective.

Without a fundamentally stronger understanding of how these governance relationships are structured and function, it is impossible to recommend solutions that will help them perform better. This is critical at a time when inequality among cities—even within the same country—is growing at a rate just as worrying as inequality within a particular urban economy. Further, the rapid growth of “megacities” in the developing world portends a looming governance crisis that will require proven and replicable solutions.

In response, the Brookings Centennial Scholar Initiative and Global Economy and Development program are collaborating on the Project on 21st Century City Governance.

The project will focus on three connected areas of exploration:

First, it will strengthen our baseline understanding of how urban and metropolitan governance works in a comparative context, by examining the ways in which key powers and responsibilities are currently distributed in different nations (or consortia like the European Union) among different levels of government and across different sectors of society.

The project will also examine the lifecycle of specific transformative transportation and energy projects in several cities across Europe and the United States—from the design to financing to execution and operation—to gain a granular understanding of the players at each stage.

Finally, we will give special attention to the drivers of innovation within highly-functioning cities across the private and public sectors, focusing on documenting and describing the new norms of governance, institutional design, and practice that are applicable across variegated systems.

We will try to learn from those that have been most successful and understand the underlying reasons for success as well as the remaining challenges. The goal is to ultimately improve the interactions across cities, higher levels of government, and the private and civic sectors—leading to cities that are governed even more effectively and are more productive, sustainable, and prosperous, with benefits spreading to regions and nations.

Get daily updates from Brookings