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Le Mani Sulla Città: Corruption in Urban Planning


“It is the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism"

The UK Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath (1970-74) in a House of Commons statement, May 1973, on the Lonrho affair.


Corruption, typically identified with developing countries and authoritarian governments (Heywood, 1997; Andersson, 2008; Bauhr et al., 2010), is becoming an epidemic problem and has reached “cancerous proportions” (Persson et al., 2012, p.253). Even Sweden, with a historically low level of corruption, is susceptible to the risk. In response, the country established the National Anti-Corruption Unit (NACPU), founded in 2012 and operated by the Swedish Prosecution Authority, which receives corruption-related reports and investigates suspected crimes (Brottsförebyggande rådet, Brå, 2013).


The cost of corruption to the European Union is between €179 and €256 billion per year (Fernandes & Jančová, 2023), a significant rise in a decade when it was reported to be €120 billion, the equivalent of the bloc’s annual budget at the time (Malmström, 2014). Consequently, society can experience widening inequality through corrupt administrations, and, at its most extreme, corruption undermines public trust in democratic institutions and processes (Malmström, 2014).


Figure 1: Transparency International 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index 2023 (Transparency International, 2024).

The global construction and urban planning sectors, which this article will discuss, are particularly vulnerable to corruption, with illicit payment, such as bribes, blighting a project’s standards, safety and maintenance (Kenny, 2007; Amoah & Steyn, 2023). With rapid urbanisation and urban growth this century, planning project procurement, bids, tenders and contracts will continue providing numerous points of interaction and engagement between the public and private sectors. Corrupt acts, which take various forms, erode the political norms of impartiality and transparency expected of public officials by the public, and the corruption of these individuals will undermine future sustainability goals and affect the safety and well-being of urban populations.


The secretive nature of corruption means research is often based on assumptions, but in a published research paper, "Public Management Reform and Corruption - Conceptualizing the Unintended Consequences," Maravic (2007, p.140) believes: “Assumptions are the first step for thorough case study analysis.” However, the lack of a global definition of corruption and what can be considered corrupt makes any study difficult, especially if anti-corruption mechanisms are flawed or perpetrators believe themselves innocent.


Figure 2: The American actor Rod Steiger as the heartless, Neopolitan politician and land developer, Edoardo Nottola, in the classic Italian, drama film Le mani sulla città (Hands Over the City) released in 1963 (Rosi, 1963).

One bad apple: defining corruption

Although Asis (2000) notes that the concept of corruption around the world “means many different things to many different people," it is considered a “global” (Russián, 2004, p.24) and “widespread” (Priks, 2012) phenomenon that seriously harms the economy and society as a whole (Gray & Kaufmann, 1998; Porta & Vannucci, 1999).


Corruption can take various forms, and there are multiple methods of misconduct: bribery, fraud, theft, nepotism or clientelism, extortion, and blackmail (Klitgaard, 1988; Porta & Mény, 1997; Andersson, 2002; Anderson, 2013). While multifaceted with political, social, and economic consequences (Klitgaard et al., 2000, p.31, Šumah, 2018), corruption has no agreed definition and “boundaries” (Kurer, 2005) of what constitutes abuse. Consequently, cultural perceptions of what is a corrupt act play a decisive factor (Melgar et al., 2010, p.120; Torsello, 2013, Schomaker, 2020).


In the 2009 Amber Films documentary, Mouth of the Tyne, on T. Dan Smith (1915-93), the corrupt Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) politician imprisoned in April 1974, interviewer Steve Trafford believes, “In the court of public morality, if you are associated with corrupt people by definition you are corrupt” (Amber Production Team, 2009). “Imperceptible” and “ambivalence” are used by Garrard (2006, p.16) and Ledeneva (2014, p.13), respectively, to further describe the difficulties of establishing boundaries between what actions can be considered legally questionable and corrupt. The influential German-American professor and political theorist Carl J. Friedrich (1901-84) wrote: “Any attempt to analyze the concept of corruption must contend with the fact that in English and other languages, the word corruption has a history of vastly different meanings and connotations” (Friedrich, 1972). Similarly, the works of Asis (2000), Mishra (2005) and Underkuffler (2009) suggest that the ambiguity of the word means that it is difficult to find a definition.


Figure 3: The Newcastle upon Tyne politician, T. Dan Smith, whose business links to the disgraced architect John Poulson (the "Poulson affair") resulted in his imprisonment in 1974 (Something Concrete + Modern, n.d.).

Carl J. Friedrich also describes a “pattern of corruption” as a situation where a person with responsibilities “is by monetary or other rewards, such as the expectation of a job in the future, induced to take actions which favour whoever provides the reward and thereby damage the group or organization to which the functionary belongs, more specifically the government” (Friedrich, 1999, p.15).


With a specific reference to government, if we expand Friedrich’s definition to include the public sphere, in which political actors within government operate, then Heywood (1997, p.5) suggests political corruption can be defined as “corrupt activities which take place either wholly within the public sphere or at the interface between public and private spheres - such as when politicians or functionaries use their privileged access to resources (in whatever form) illegitimately to benefit themselves or others.” Consequently, by weakening institutional performance, corruption disrupts the movement of resources (Iossa & Martimort, 2013) resulting in inequality (Uslaner, 2013, p.3604).


Similarly, a definition of corruption devised by Gould & Kolb (1964, p.142) that “[it] is the use of . . . power for . . . profit, preferment, or prestige, or for the benefit of a group or class, in a way that constitutes a breach of law or of standards of high moral conduct” supports Heywood (1997) by viewing corruption from two distinct perspectives: structural influences (Groenendijk, 1997, p.207) and individual decisions (Nas et al., 1986, p.109). This can be expanded to argue that corruption is the abuse of power for private gain (Groenendijk, 1997, p.217; Bauhr et al., 2010).


Figure 4: Corruption can take various forms, and there are multiple methods of misconduct harming economies and societies (Creativeart, 2024).

Public-Private-People Partnership

Urban planning is the process of designing land use for urban dwellings and sustainably managing the resulting infrastructure, services, and resources (Bibri & Krogstie, 2017). It is a political process (Fainstein & Fainstein, 1971; Khakee, 1997; Auerbach, 2012), with varying economic and social outcomes and consequences for individuals, groups, and communities (UN-Habitat, 2015), that has grown to involve stakeholders in the public, private, and social spheres—a Public-Private-People Partnership (PPPP or 4P).


This initiative has replaced the traditional governmental overview of public services and urban design projects with corporate governance in policymaking decisions (Kuronen et al., 2012; Schomaker, 2020). Communication, transparency, and accessibility are key tenets between the public, private, and social actors (Voets et al., 2077), identified as the local governments, the developers, and the end-users, respectively (Marana et al., 2018; Boniotti, 2023). However, defining this cooperation process as the actions of “Business - government - community” (Kaletnik & Lutkovska, 2021, p.83) highlights the diminishing distinction “between the public and private sphere” (Schomaker, 2020).


At any stage of its process, from design to execution (Iossa & Martimort, 2013), a 4P project is not immune from corruption, even in developed countries with established political institutions (Bohman, 2012). These long-term public projects, aimed to drive modernisation efforts (Amović et al., 2020) or agreed upon when costs and scale require private intervention (Bergere, 2016), require allocating significant public finance and resources. If these decisions are made "behind closed doors,"  corruption can occur because this environment of secrecy provides access to the few (Sandholtz and Koetzle, 2000, quoted in Linde & Erlingsson, 2011, p.2). This gives officials and stakeholders a relatively high degree of personal but unaccountable judgement and flexibility. Individual discretion, with a lack of accountability, also increases the possibility of corruption.


Rules and regulations are created to ensure legitimacy and to prevent advocacy from becoming bribery. Outdated policies and procedures (control systems) affect organisational robustness, and the lack of oversight exposes organisations to corruption risks. Institutional impartiality is eroded (Rothstein & Teorell, 2008).


Figure 5: The Public-Private-People Partnership (4P) of public entities, private companies and citizens (Marana et al., 2018).

Planning and execution

Post-war, twentieth-century urban planning addressed urban decay, slum housing, and the zoning of industrial, economic, and natural assets (Self, 1981; Hourihan, 2000). Cities were to be functional. Today, safe, sustainable, and adaptable urban planning goals require cultural, economic, and environmental considerations (Johnson, 1993; Bächtold, 2013, p.52; Shoja & Heidari, 2015). Successful cooperation between leaders, architects, and planners will address the long-term needs of most of these factors, yet when corruption occurs in urban planning, public health and safety are risked for a quick profit. As a result, although it achieves short-term rewards for the corrupted, it undermines sustainable development goal commitments (Owusu et al., 2021; Troisi et al., 2023), negatively affecting far more. It raises important issues when planning objectives that appear desirable and acceptable, such as addressing a local housing shortage, become “morally reprehensible” due to corrupt activity (Amber Production Team, 2009).


The influential British-Italian architect Richard Rogers (1933-2021), whose notable designs included Paris’ Pompidou Centre (opened in 1977) and London’s Millenium Dome (opened in 1999), believed, “Architecture is political. If you don’t work with the politicians then you can’t be an architect. If you have any vision then you have to get it across” (Sweasey, 2014). The cooperation between architects and politicians is essential with the scale of urbanisation—the demographic transition from rural to urban resulting in the physical growth of urban areas (Anderson, 1959; McGranahan & Satterthwaite, 2014; Kuddus et al., 2020; Menashe-Oren & Bocquier, 2021)—recently occurring. By 2050, the global urban population is projected to be two-thirds of the world’s population (United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2019; United Nations Human Settlements Programme, 2022).


This poses huge challenges for local and national governments to provide housing and crucial services, such as education and healthcare, in densely settled areas (Habib, 2007). The unequal distribution of wealth and resources within the global neo-liberal system has resulted in the growth of slums, home to the urban poor, which the United Nations-Habitat defines as groups of individuals who endure poorly constructed housing, overcrowding, inadequate access to clean water, insufficient access to sanitation, and the threat of eviction (UN-Habitat, 2003; Mould, 2017). With increasingly poorer sections of society relying upon informal land and housing for access to shelter (Mitlin, 2013), such as squatting (Durand-Lasserve, 2006), this growth highlights inefficient governance, institutions, and land/housing policymaking (Sharma & Sita, 2000; Marx et al., 2023) and the urgent need for collaboration between officials, leaders, and architects in urban planning.


Figure 6: The Prestes Maia building in downtown São Paulo, Brazil, is believed to be the largest squatted highrise building in South America, with an estimated 2000 inhabitants (Tet, 2022).

Successful urban planning requires the input of various skilled and experienced individuals and organisations capable of addressing changing circumstances, resource distribution, and local cultural, historical, and environmental considerations (Auerbach, 2012). While it is imperative to involve a diversity of stakeholders and organisations in the "networked governance structures" (Rocco, 2013) which have emerged, for the best and most sustainable results, the responsibility of a project should rest in the hands of elected officials as they are directly accountable to the public for its costs (using public funds), direction and outcomes (Reynolds, 1964). Accountability to the public means, "public officials inform and justify their plans of action, their behavior, and results and are sanctioned accordingly” (Ackerman, 2004, p.3, quoted in Ahmad, 2008). This, however, is not a guarantee that corruption will not occur, since finance and power provide opportunities for abuse and exploitation (Huntington, 1968), namely the demand for land, building materials, administration, and expertise in construction, engineering, and surveying (Zinnbauer, 2019).


In a 2007 television documentary for the UK’s BBC Four channel, investigative journalist and writer Martin Tomkinson, co-author of the 1980 book Nothing to Declare: Political Corruptions of John Poulson, stated: “Corruption isn’t a joke. It’s not something, ‘oh well, it doesn’t matter’. What it leads to is shoddy buildings. Buildings that fall down. Buildings that have damp. That kind of thing. And it directly impacts on people’s lives” (Denyer, 2007). Rachmanism, a British term used to describe the exploitation and harassment of slum tenants or renters by a rogue landlord, and the 1968 Ronan Point tower block collapse in Newham, East London, killing four people, are just two examples of poor urban policies that subjected inhabitants to substandard living conditions. Therefore, when the misuse of public office has been excused as “individualistic, not systematic” (Harris, 2003, p.98) “episodic and personalised” (Doig, 2003, p.178) or “antics which, however diverting, do not affect the way we are governed” (Baston, 2000, p.9, quoted in Harris, 2003, p.97), it weakens trust and redress in the democratic system (Jones, 2004, p.24; Ware et al., 2007, p.298; Voigt and Gutmann, 2015).


Passive acceptance by governments and administrative systems demonstrates the difficulties of defining what housing can be considered illegal or dangerous: “In many situations the borderline between formal and informal remains blurred” (Durand-Lasserve, 2006).


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Ware, G.T., Moss, S., Campos, E., & Noone, G.P. (2007). Corruption in Public Procurement: A Perennial Challenge. In Camps, E. & Pradhan, S. (Eds.) The Many Faces of Corruption: Tackling Vulnerabilities at the Sector Level. World Bank Publications.


Zinnbauer, D.; (2019) Towards cities of integrity: The role of urban planners. Bergen, Norway: U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute (U4 Brief 2019:4). Retrieved from https://www.u4.no/publications/towards-cities-of-integrity-the-role-of-urban-planners.pdf

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2 ความคิดเห็น


Maxwell Jeremy
Maxwell Jeremy
6 days ago

The urban planning process needs to be rigorously implemented in every process to ensure that no fraud or corruption takes place dinosaur game. At the same time, corrupt actions also need to be severely punished to deter and pay the price for what they have done.

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han gu
han gu
26 มิ.ย.

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