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Strategic Planning and Urban Competition: The Agenda of Mulitlateral Agencies in Brazil

September 18, 2000 by Administrator in September/October 2000

by Fabricio Leal de Oliveira

In Brazil today, the same solutions for cities come up in almost all forums, debates, and institutions: sustainability and competition. Competition, which is expressed through strategic urban planning, affects all local policy, including environmental policy. It favors relations between local government and entrepreneurs, the actors seen as most capable of carving out the city’s place in the world market.

In Brazil, the main event launching strategic planning was the arrival in 1993 of a delegation from CataluËa (Spain) in Rio de Janeiro. They were invited by Mayor CÞsar Maia, who was elected by a right wing coalition. The Seminar “Urban Strategies – Rio Barcelona” introduced a new discourse on city administration which soon spread throughout the country and to other cities in Latin America. The consultants, TUBSA (Tecnologies Urbanes S. A.), among them Jordi Borja and Manuel de Forn, took part in seminars in many countries and gave advice to other Latin American cities, helping governments of many different political orientations.

The model of urban strategic planning adopted was an adaptation of the business model of strategic planning to the public sector. Guiding the urban model are powerful certainties about economic globalization, the inevitability of competition between cities, and the need to establish new relations between public and private sectors.

In the strategic planning discussions, the issues are not urban transformation based on justice or truth, or the possibilities of a future not exclusively dictated by the present. On the contrary, strategic planning is used to approach the future by following more or less current trends, and elaborating strategies to manage them efficiently. The diagnosis and prescription for the city are almost always the same. It needs modern infrastructure and new compromises between public and private actors, to carry out events such as conferences, international fairs, Olympic games, and festivals. It needs to reform public administration, usually involving privatization and contracting out public services. There is a portfolio of actions and projects often recurring throughout the world. These include renewal of central areas, the development of teleports in big cities, redevelopment of port areas, rehabilitation of commercial areas, and the construction of roadways.

Investments to Attract Investments

The projects in strategic plans are legitimized when they are considered capable of inserting the city in a globalized world so it is competitive. To determine this, all actors in the elaboration of the plan should reach “consensus.” However, since the accomplishment of the plan’s actions and projects depends on private resources, the actors most able to make investments define the plan’s content.

In strategic planning, and in some agendas sponsored by international development agencies, the social actors are listed according to their relevance. The notion of “relevant actors” implies the opposite – “irrelevant actors” not directly involved or necessary to the process. In fact, the “relevant actors” category, actually, refers to the actors most capable of investment and influence, which excludes most of the population. In the Rio de Janeiro Strategic Plan experience, a partnership between City Hall, the Commercial Association, and the Industrial Federation conducted the planning process despotically and shut out segments of little strategic relevance to them.

Under the mantle of “consensus” between all social actors, the conflicts in the city are hidden and people with no participation in the final decisions are converted into “authors” and invited to applaud their own defeat. In the texts on urban strategic planning and in at least some of the international and environmental agendas for the cities, the solutions presented to the cities are often based on the assumption of “a truce on internal conflicts…[or for an] internal social peace,” according to Professor Carlos Vainer. According to Vainer, when the purpose is to expand competitiveness, the call for the participation of local communities is a call for an “abdication [of power] in favor of charismatic leaders who represent the entrepreneurial project.”

The prescription given to local governments includes steps to simplify rules and policies, adopt an entrepreneurial attitude open to the development of partnerships, and efforts to guarantee the “quality of urban life,” a “livability” that would attract and keep skilled workers.

The documents supported by the World Bank are the most transparent in the support for competitiveness, and for limiting people’s participation through a consensus imposed from outside. The main topics are administration, decentralization, public-private partnerships, consensus, experimentation, the diffusion of best practices, deregulation, institutional development, and the obsolescence of comprehensive planning. And they never forget to emphasize poverty relief.

The Bank’s discourse on sustainability is basically the same. According to Fernando Rojas, who wrote Sustainable Cities for the World Bank, the development agencies should see “local institutional development as a continuous and interactive process of consultation,” and should work for the “creation of learning environments that could be receptive to the continuous incorporation of lessons learned through the period of implementation of projects.” This modest suggestion, however, does not contradict the fact that rules keep being defined by “international consensus.” Rojas gives detailed advice about citizen participation, such as how to avoid the interference of political parties while making decisions, and how to avoid public hearings which could be controlled and manipulated by the most powerful members of the community. Oddly, Rojas does not question with the same emphasis the building of public-private partnerships, which certainly involve the participation of powerful members of the local entrepreneurial elite. Throughout his prescription for the task managers of international development agencies, Rojas emphasizes the danger represented by an undesirable invasion of politics in the process of city management. According to Rojas, the development ageny’s program should stimulate and institute public-private partnerships that incorporate local governments as promoters and coordinators, motivate local actors to participate on the basis of their own private interests, and help relieve poverty in the short, medium, and long terms.

This depoliticizing of the relations between local public sector and entrepreneurial elites, and the denigration of politics, which could pollute the relations among local government, national government and political parties, take us back to a technocratic representation of the city. The participation of the community is welcome only when it serves to legitimize the “evident” proposals of the globalized world and the inevitable competition between cities.

Brazil’s Agenda 21, which is being produced with resources from the federal government and United Nations Development Program (UNDP), touches on the same themes. Consensus, public-private cooperation, shared administration and social control are the main points around which proposals are developed in the document “Sustainable Cities,” which refers to Brazilian cities. Themes such as the reduction of social inequality through universal public services, environmental quality, public participation in decisionmaking, and housing for diverse social groups are presented not as goals in themselves but as tools for improvement of the “condition for city insertion in the world of competitiveness established regionally, nationally, and globally.”

Public participation in the elaboration of this document was very limited. There was a three-day workshop and a one-day national seminar. Although workshop participants have contributed by making changes to the proposals, the basic ideas in the document were formulated in advance and did not change at all. In the national seminar on Agenda 21, the amount of time given to debates was so limited that the majority of participants didn’t even have time to speak.

The international discourse on sustainability fits in with the model of competition. In the name of a consensus almost everything can fit the sustainability guidelines. There is room for everything, from defending federal government policies to an open economy, guidelines set by multilateral agencies, and principles that compromise social equality and income redistribution. But the debate about urban sustainability also reflects the ideal of imposing the market as an efficient regulator of urban reproduction. In fact, in the documents produced by multilateral agencies, to manage sustainable cities always means promoting urban productivity and reinforcing competitive advantages.


Fabricio Leal de Oliveira is an architect and urban planner at the Instituto de Pesquisa e Planejamento Urbano e Regional da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (IPPUR-UFRJ) and Rio de Janeiro City Hall. This article was presented at the Planners Network Conference in Toronto this June.

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