Opinion

The city and its neighbourhoods

Who governs? How are our cities governed and for whom?

“Dr Madeleine Pill is a Lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and is one of the co-Conveners of the Cities Research Network. Dr Pill, along with numerous colleagues across different disciplines within the University of Sydney, will be part of a workshop on ‘Transforming Urban Life in the Age of Environmental Crisis,” co-hosted by the SEI. Our goal is to develop collaborations at the intersection of cities and sustainability, and Dr Pill’s work on urban governance will be key to understanding how cities can adapt and transition to a climate-challenged society. Here, Dr Pill introduces her most recent work.”  SEI Co-Director David Schlosberg

My research seeks to broaden the question ‘who governs?’ by asking how are our cities governed and for whom. I want to fine grain understanding of the state-society relationships of governance and how these vary by policy realm and spatially in different urban contexts. The city and its neighbourhoods are where people live and conduct their daily lives – and thus hold the potential for alternative, transformative practices.

A dominant binary of perceptions prevails about how cities are governed. The optimistic view is that making governance more participatory and networked helps overcome bureaucratic rigidities by enabling capacity to address complex problems as well as enhancing democratic legitimacy. The pessimistic view sees urban governance as reflecting the dominance of state and economic elites, into which third sector and community partners are co-opted to compensate for the decline in the state’s welfare function. My research into urban governance seeks to move beyond this binary by exploring practice and its potentialities.

I can illustrate this fine graining drawing on research I’ve just completed. The ‘Transgob’ project is a comparative analysis of the discourse and practice of participatory urban governance under austerity, conducted in two British and four Spanish cities. In Cardiff, my case study (and home) city, we found that austerity has heightened the imperative to implement the city’s urban governance structure, the Cardiff Partnership. This has enabled local government to share the risk and responsibility of governance functions such as service delivery with other public organisations, but also with third sector organisations and community groups at the neighbourhood level. Communities are having to take more responsibility for delivering their own (formerly public) services. Those at the frontline of the neighbourhood (or the interface of state and civil society) face tensions and power conflicts in trying to develop a workable practice. But we found signs that community-based organisations have some room to innovate in developing forms of co-production. One example is timebanking, wherein residents can exchange equivalent hours of providing a service such as volunteering or childcare. It is too early to tell whether these approaches can or will be upscaled or replicated. One factor is the need for change in local government attitudes to risk as it learns to relinquish its former level of control. This is also being played out the transfer of public assets such as libraries to community organisations.

The Cardiff experience of participatory governance demonstrates the importance of recognising the potential for transformative alternatives in the everyday and the small-scale. To quote colleagues, it heightens the importance of ‘the study of local practices, in ways that recognise the multiple logics at play in different conjunctures, and the spaces such ambiguities and ‘messiness’ open up for different forms of situated agency’ (Blanco et al, 2014: 3129).

You can access the report about Cardiff and the other cities here https://transgob.net/

My current research continues these themes. It is an international, eight-city study of the way cities govern and manage crises and social change, focused on the relationships between governmental and non-governmental actors. My case study city is Baltimore in the US. Exploratory research focused on the policy realms of neighbourhood revitalisation and community development. Initial findings were that the city’s ‘ed and med’ anchor institutions and its philanthropic foundations are key players in this realm along with city government. But where’s the citizen? In discussing working together, citizens/ service users/ community representatives were not generally mentioned, partnership interpreted as being between the city’s key institutions and its non-profit organisations. A government official critiqued the ‘whole infrastructure… [that] co-opts community voice and says, this is what the community wants’. However, the riots which took place in the city in April 2015 in response to police brutality and misconduct proved to be a key focusing moment. A community activist explained that ‘the unrest awakened many people’ who are ‘talking about things they’ve never talked about before’. Another commented, ‘it’s going to take courage…because these are systematic, inequitable things that are so entrenched in this city that we really have to blow this thing up and do it the right way’. Thus Baltimore seems to be at a critical juncture which has heightened collaboration and partnership in discourse – will this be reflected in practices and institutions?

You can access more information about this research here https://cura.our.dmu.ac.uk/2015/08/01/collaborative-governance-under-austerity-an-8-case-comparison/

I also look forward to working on Sydney – a fascinating case for urban governance research, not least given the very strong role of NSW State government; and the lack of an elected or otherwise form of metro governance. The role of the Greater Sydney Commission and how this is articulated is an area of great interest; as is the intent of state agencies such as Urban Growth NSW to establish better modes of citizen participation and governance. And the expressions of civil society and political activism, such as captured by the Sydney Alliance, also offer intriguing possibilities for shaping Sydney’s future.