Published on Sustainable Cities

Learning, Labbing and Loving It: When Cities Come Together to Learn

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Participants of the Global Lab on Metropolitan Strategic PlanningOn April 19th, the Annual Regional Assembly of the Regional Planning Association (RPA) of New York looked some what different. In the audience were representatives from 10 cities and World Bank staff. RPA was launching the 4th Regional Plan for the New York region, and other cities were there to listen, learn and bring their own experience to the table. Why metropolitan planning and why New York? What brought this group together and how does peer-to-peer learning bring a new dimension to the process of learning? How does it influence better outcomes and a rich iterative process of evidenced based learning? Let’s start at the very beginning.

Like many of our client cities, New York faced apparently intractable problems in the 1990s as a bankrupt, high-crime area with decaying public infrastructure. The process of recovery in the New York City Region owes itself as much to smart regional planning as to political leadership. New York is indeed a work in progress — continually being defined—and the collaboration of multiple stakeholders in visioning the future is a key element of its durability and success.

Establishing a joint vision with the community, responding quickly to challenges and taking on projects with sufficient scale are some of the ingredients of transformative and sustainable growth of cities, as explained by Adam Schneider, the mayor of Long Branch, New Jersey. He described how he worked with his community to transform a dying town within the New York Metropolitan area into a vibrant urban center. Long Branch, Brooklyn’s derelict East New York neighborhood (in the early stages of regeneration), and the Moynihan Station Initiative in Manhattan were three site visits that complemented two days of discussions at an April event to launch the Global Lab on Metropolitan Strategic Planning, facilitating peer-to-peer learning among the cities of Accra, Addis Ababa, Dar Es Salam, Ho Chi Minh City, Karachi, Kathmandu, Mexico City, Mumbai, Nairobi, Rio de Janeiro and New York.

It was in 2012, following the World Bank’s participation in the annual conference of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an NGO that provides guidance on the development of the New York City Metropolitan Region, when it became evident to Abha Joshi Ghani, Director of Thematic Learning at the World Bank Institute, and Bob Yaro, RPA’s President, that the process of regional planning in New York can provide a unique laboratory. Emerging global cities could learn from, as well as challenge, New York planners by sharing experiences about urban and regional development, as these cities face many similar, but even more intense demands such as high population growth and dearth of financial resources.

The idea of a laboratory would enable World Bank client cities to immerse themselves in and learn from observing the preparation for the 4th Regional Plan — a global event which takes place every 20-25 years. The idea found immediate resonance with the World Bank and with the cities.

Nurturing a Living Lab

The kick-off meeting of the Lab focused on transformational agendas such as the nexus of land use, land value capture and transport, urban resiliency, inclusion and poverty reduction, solid waste management and local economic development. The participants from Rio de Janeiro emphasized the need to consider metropolitan finance as a cross cutting issue among all themes as it defines success or failure.

As important as planning structures is the need for reliable data with which policies and decisions can be formulated. Another point repeated by many participants, was that civic engagements and participation are essential.

The World Bank, through its urban operational units, urban anchor and World Bank Institute, collaborated with RPA in putting together the agenda and launching the Lab, uniting some of the most outstanding practitioners, academic, private sector and NGO leaders from the New York area with senior urban planners from the participating cities. It was clear from the outset that it is not business as usual — it is an example of a new way of sharing client and practitioner knowledge to foster solutions, think freely and inspire new action.

Moving Forward

As part of this learning, a virtual community of practice was launched to share knowledge among Lab members. Bi-monthly webinars and city, regional and global forums are also planned for the next three years. Outreach with structured learning products from the World Bank are part of the plan.

However, the most important aspect of the Lab will be proposals made by each of the cities identifying areas where they want to collaborate in the open space — seeking peer-to-peer guidance to move complex agendas. Other metropolitan cities with planning experiences to share will be invited to join the virtual community and provide site visits as the Lab proceeds.

All signs are that the science of delivery is finally taking root in the Bank.



Victor Vergara

Lead Urban Specialist

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