16 September 2005 - 18 September 2005

The world's cities: can they take the strain?

Chair: The Hon John Godfrey PC, MP and Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO

For its opening conference of the autumn season Ditchley moved to Langdon Hall, Ontario, where the visitors from the eastern side of the Atlantic found a strong Canadian contingent led by The Honorable John Godfrey, Minister of State for Infrastructure and Communities, a very comfortable hotel in the woods and a programme entirely faithful to the Ditchley model.  With a large proportion of participants coming from the UK and Canada, the (rather different) experiences of London and Toronto dominated the discussion.  But we also had some interesting perspectives from the developing world and tried to draw some lessons that would be appropriate for the growing number of global megacities as well as for conurbations closer to home.

The conference reflected profound concern that the difficulties which cities faced over the long term would be insurmountable without a much more focused approach to their administration and funding.  There was virtual unanimity that the role of the great city was central to the life of a nation, but that this was not reflected in the vast proportion of political structures within which city governments had to work.  The city was the place where economic strength and innovation were generated, where social differences were confronted and, if possible, eased and where environmental problems were concentrated.  They also tended to be the places where political dividing lines, both vertical and horizontal, were most marked. 

We therefore spent a good deal of time discussing the relationship between different levels of government, national, regional and municipal.  With rare exceptions, city governments tended to be squeezed between the power and primacy of national governments and the more straightforward function and vision of local government in municipalities of manageable size.  It was generally agreed that central government had to decide on the overall structure within which devolved authority and funding worked and that, for the most part, central government was reluctant to delegate enough authority to cities for them to be able to make the choices which best suited the nature of each particular city.  Finding the balance between economies of scale and consistency of national policy and culture on the one hand and, on the other, the precision of decision-making to suit a city’s personality and the democratic wishes of its citizens was extremely difficult.  The conference advocated much more regular discussion and communication between the various levels of government and a much more systematic sharing of the strategic responsibilities.  We also asked for central government to understand that, even if they were the source of a large proportion of a city’s income, they should not try to over-manage the choices which city governments had to make on expenditure.

The conference accepted as a given that population flows would continue to move into cities, sometimes causing rapid growth.  We felt that national and city governments were paying too little attention in their planning to the likelihood that migration flows and de-ruralisation would place strains on cities far greater than their current capacities could tolerate.  We were reminded of the huge risks which cities faced through their dependence, as living organisms, on their external environment.  The problems of water and waste, energy, social polarisation, land availability and government structures all extended way beyond the boundaries of the cities themselves.  Their health and economic success had to be regarded as intimately connected with the region around them.  There were therefore significant benefits for society as a whole in investing sensibly in the future of cities and in understanding the downsides of continuing with a situation where, on average, city infrastructures were designed for a quarter of the load which they were actually bearing.

In considering funding and resources for cities, one working group advocated a careful balance between top-down and bottom-up approaches.  It was strongly argued that only at the municipal or neighbourhood level could urban problems be accurately addressed.  Three stages of activity were necessary in the allocation of responsibility for the proper functioning of cities.  First, responsibility had to be uploaded to national or provincial governments where economies of scale were possible, where inequities had to be addressed, where political and economic jurisdictions had to be aligned or where different conurbations interacted.  Strategic planning was also more likely to be effective at the macro level.  Other responsibilities, however, needed to be downloaded to the lowest level of government possible.  Local communities had the right to be different within a particular urban area, where the problems to be overcome were different and where the opportunity to construct neighbourhoods with different feels and distinct preferences were greater.  Between these two poles many services had to be shared across local boundaries.  While such a system could be complex, there was no reason to assume that communication and good relationships could not sort out which jurisdiction did what in order to construct a rational financing system.  Many felt that, if agreement could be reached on these uploaded and downloaded responsibilities, there was no longer a rational basis for financial transfers between different levels of government.  Others believed that it would not be possible to avoid transfer payments altogether, if big disparities between rich and poor cities within the same national structure were to be avoided.  But devising complex transfer formulas was almost always a sign of a failing system. 

There was much discussion of the best forms of tax and other revenue-generating mechanisms and of the best ways to deliver services, utilities, and transport facilities.  Each participant will have taken away new ideas and new arguments for and against the various alternatives.  There was general agreement that no one model could be set in any of these areas.  Each city had to start from its history, culture and heritage and from its geographical and climatic realities.  Participants pointed out, however, that not enough attention was being paid to the question of optimum density and to the importance of thorough professional planning.  The role of infrastructure was central to shaping the effectiveness of a working city and to determining the maximum size to which it could safely grow.  We decided that it was not possible in any particular case to state that a city could not grow further without risk of collapse.  But it was not enough to assume that a larger size could be accommodated by endlessly extending the original shape and infrastructural characteristics.  Growth had to be planned for in advance.

The conference recognised how to encourage the right type of city leadership and how to promote the capacity to realise the best planning concepts.  Most people felt that the quality and availability of training for city management was deficient.  At the global level, there was too little sharing of relevant experience.  Perhaps cities should be given a greater place on the global event calendar, with mayors meeting between different countries, continents and stages of development.

At times the conference did turn to the question of whether the cities of the developing world could learn from the developed world’s experience, and vice-versa.  It was pointed out that Bombay ought to be understood by London as much as the converse, not least because the next Londoners might have been born in Bombay.  It was not safe to assume that the developing world’s cities could readily borrow western planning concepts, which were often oriented towards particular infrastructure patterns and were over-dependent on the automobile.  The city authorities in the developing world needed to look carefully at where foreign aid or investment was directed:  too often it was accepted as welcome funding when it was for a less than fully appropriate purpose.  Airport roads which merely displaced traffic jams, or a system of public toilets which were then not properly maintained, were given as examples of ineffective World Bank initiatives.  It was pointed out that the size of the developing world’s megacities already far exceeded the norm in the developed world.  Nevertheless there was enough shared experience and similarity of problems for greater communication between the two worlds to be worthwhile. 

Running alongside this discussion came a plea for the advantages of immigration into the developed world’s cities to be more readily recognised.  The reasons for resisting even small numbers of immigrants were well understood.  But migration flows were bound to be a part of the future and the need to treat immigrants inclusively was regarded as paramount.  Canada itself had set an example by setting positive targets for encouraging immigration.  Elsewhere national attitudes, and national circumstances, were bound to be different.  But it was necessary to look beyond the provisional and the temporary if modern capacities were to be made to fit modern challenges.  The great drivers of change in the coming years were going to be international competition, with the rise of the new emerging powers;  demographic pressures within a globalised world;  and the intensifying problems of energy, climate change and natural disasters.  How cities coped with these would be a great part of the story of how national societies as a whole coped.  Only through imaginative planning and foresight could the real costs of the growth of cities be absorbed.  Each level of authority would need to take on the right proportion of the burden and private and public sectors would have to work together to share the cost.

As so often with Ditchley’s conferences, the basis for several further debates arose out of this one.  Some participants wanted the concept of a mono-culture for a multi-ethnic urban society to be explored.  Others felt that there was room for much better statistical analysis and monitoring of trends in cities to be provided.  On this occasion we touched too lightly on city security and the control of crime and violence.  And we came back again and again to the problem of the different layers of government and the relationship between them.  Nonetheless our meeting at Langdon Hall achieved an exchange of new ideas and a deepening of perspective which everyone found valuable.  We owed a lot to our two co-chairs, Minister of State John Godfrey and Sir Crispin Tickell, for steering the discussion through its complexities and generating a strong commitment to a continuing study of the problems.  Finally, we were all immensely grateful to Canadian Ditchley and to the Canadian sponsors of the event who had enabled us to participate in such a worthwhile experience.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression



The Hon John Godfrey PC, MP (CANADA)                       

Member of Parliament, Liberal, Don Valley West (1993-);  Minister of State, Infrastructure and Communities (2004-). Formerly: Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister (2003-2004); Editor, The Financial Post (1987-91.


Chancellor, University of Kent; Director, Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding; Visiting Fellow, Harvard University Centre for the Environment.  Formerly: Convenor of the Government Panel on Sustainable Development (1994-2000); Warden of Green College, Oxford (1990-97); Permanent Representative, United Nations (1987-90); Permanent Secretary, Overseas Development Administration (1984-87).  A Governor and Member of Council, The Ditchley Foundation.  Author.


Dr Roberta Kronka Mulfarth 

Fellow, Laboratory in Energy and Environmental Comfort, School of Architecture and Urbanism, University of Sao Paulo (1999-); Fellow, NUTAU, Center for Research in Architecture and Urban Design, Sao Paulo (1997-).


Mr Alan Broadbent        

Chairman & CEO, Avana Capital Corporation; Chairman & CEO, Jamscor Inc; Chairman, Pace Integration; Chairman, The Philanthropic Initiative; Chairman, Maytree Foundation.

Mr Andrew Coyne        

National Affairs Columnist, The National Post.

Mr Jack Diamond        

Principal, Diamond and Schmitt Architects.

Mr Andrew Farncombe     

Director, International Partnerships, Canadian Urban Institute.  

Mr John Farrow        
President, LEA International Limited.

Mr André Juneau        

Deputy Head, Infrastructure, Canada (2002-); Deputy Minister to the Hon John Godfrey (2004‑).

Ms Nancy Kennedy        

Acting Assistant Deputy Minister, Provincial Local Finance Division, Ministry of Finance.

Mr Pierre Lortie  

President, Comité de Transition de l'Agglomeration de Montreal; Chairman, Lyrtech; President, G&P Montrose.

Dr Michel Maila        

Director and Treasurer, Canadian Ditchley Foundation.

Professor Patricia McCarney        
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto; Director, Global Cities Programme, Munk Centre for International Studies.  Author.

Mr John McNeil      

Director and Chairman of Executive Committee, Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada.

Mr Michael Pearson 

Deputy Commissioner General, World Urban Forum 3, June 2006.

Dr Grant Reuber OC FRSC 

Senior Adviser and Director, Sussex Circle (1999-).  A  Governor, The Ditchley Foundation. Chairman, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.

Mr William Robson 

Senior Vice President and Director of Research, CD Howe Institute; Canadian Liaison Officer, British-North American Committee; President, The Canadian Ditchley Foundation.  Author.

Dr Enid Slack

Director, Institute on Municipal Finance, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.

Ms Mary Webb        

Senior Economist and Manager, Scotia Economics (Capital Markets Group); Chartered Financial Analyst; Special Consultant, Statistics Canada; Member, Executive Committee, Toronto Financial Services Alliance.

Dr Robert Young 

Professor of Political Science, Canada Research Chair in Multilevel Governance, University of Western Ontario.


Dr Wendy Thomson CBE

Professor, School of Social Work and Social Policy, McGill University.


Mr Nicholas Armour 

British Consul General, Toronto; Director, Trade & Investment Canada.

Mr Ashish Bhatt        

Deputy Director, The Ditchley Foundation (2001-);  Member, Board of Directors, The United Nations Association, UK.

Mr Neil Chrimes       

Counsellor (Economic, Science and Trade Section), British High Commission, Ottawa.

Mr Martin Crookston 

Director, Llewelyn-Davies Limited; Member, English Urban Task Force; Board Member, Tower Hamlets Environment Trust.

Mr Anthony Dunnett CBE President, International Health Partners (UK) Limited; Member, Urban Task Force.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock GCMG

Director, The Ditchley Foundation (2004-).  Special Adviser to the BP Group.

Mr Anthony Mayer        
Chief Executive, The Greater London Authority.

Mr Steven Norris      

Chairman, Jarvis plc; Chairman, AMT-Sybex Limited.  Conservative Candidate for Mayor of London (2000) and (2004).

Professor Richard Sennett  

Professor of Sociology, London School of Economics; Bemis Professor of Social Sciences, MIT. 

Mr Tony Travers        

Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics and Political Science.


Madame Leila Vignal 

Researcher, French National Centre for Scientific Research; Affiliated to the Department of Geography, Oxford University.


Professor Muhammad Anwar        

Professor, Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of  Warwick.


Mr David Riemer        

Project Director, Wisconsin Health Project.  Author. Member of the Advisory Council, The American Ditchley Foundation.

Professor Saskia Sassen 

Ralph Lewis Professor of Sociology, University of Chicago;  Centennial Visiting Professor, London School of Economics.  Author.


Mr Suketu Mehta

Journalist and Author, Maximum City, Bombay Lost and Found.


Professor Robin Hambleton 

Dean, College of Urban Policy and Public Affairs, Professor of Public Administration; Professor, Urban Planning and Policy, University of Illinois.  Author.