Organising Cities is a three year project funded by the Halloran Trust at the University of Sydney. It is dedicated to better understanding how civil society can be more effectively involved in shaping the cities of the world.

Project Overview

In a growing number of cities, citizens are channeling frustration with existing citizen engagement processes into the creation of urban alliances that bring together diverse civil society actors to articulate and pursue common interests. The intention of such alliances is to enable citizens to play a proactive role in the shaping of their cities, as an alternative to the reactive role they are often ascribed in existing governance and planning frameworks.

This will be the first international comparative study of these alliances.

Through desk-based mapping and qualitative case studies, the project will examine their global extent, their different forms and activities, their relationship to existing forms of citizen participation in existing structures of urban governance and planning, and their effectiveness as infrastructures for citizen engagement and empowerment. The research will contribute to scholarly understanding of citizen participation in urban governance and planning. It will make significant practical contributions to the efforts of citizens who engaged in urban alliances in their cities as a means to democratise urban governance, and it will also aid the efforts of those working in planning agencies who are seeking more genuine citizen participation.

Basis for the project

Cities are undergoing radical transformation as they struggle to address the economic, social and environmental challenges of the ‘urban age’. What is the role of citizens in actively shaping and directing these transformations?

Without citizen involvement in urban governance, the justice of both decision-making processes and the outcomes they generate is rightly called into question. However, while there is broad consensus that citizens should be involved in shaping urban futures, there is also widespread acknowledgement that current citizen engagement mechanisms are failing to engage diverse urban citizenries and generate just outcomes.

For example, there has been sustained critique of consultation processes typically employed in urban planning. Sympathetic critics worry that while consultation is well-intentioned, it is characterized by shallow participation, domination by the ‘usual suspects’, and/or resistance to change. Hostile critics argue consultation processes are cynical exercises designed to legitimize plans that have already been made by elites and/or experts behind closed doors, evidence of the increasing de-politicization of urban governance. According to such critics, the interests of cities are increasingly defined in relation to their capacity to compete for mobile capital and skilled labour. In this context, the ‘rules of the game’ of urban governance are increasingly seen to be stacked against genuine citizen participation.

What are the alternatives? How might we rethink the infrastructures of citizen engagement to produce more democratic, egalitarian and sustainable urban futures? Are there still prospects for citizens to play a significant role in shaping their cities, in our age of globalization where urbanization processes frequently exceed the space of the city to operate on a planetary scale?

Of course, citizen participation can take many forms. Groups of organised citizens have long sought to influence urban outcomes by taking matters into their own hands, challenging the rules of the game that would see them reduced to potential stakeholders in someone else’s consultation exercise. Existing repertoires for action on urban issues have tended to organise citizens on the basis of sectional interests (eg organised labour, identity groups, etc), local interests (eg neighbourhood-based resident action groups and community development associations), issues-based advocacy (eg groups organised to promote public transport, disability access, etc), and reactive oppositional campaigns (eg anti-freeway, anti-highrise, anti-lockout, etc). More recently tools of digital communication and engagement are being mobilised in these efforts. Yet while these forms of citizen mobilisation certainly have localized successes, they have each been critiqued for their inability to make more substantial transformations in the way urban governance is conducted.

In many cities, people are channeling their frustrations with existing engagement infrastructures and repertoires of citizen action into experiments with new forms of organisation. One of these is the creation of urban alliances.

Urban alliances involve unlikely coalitions of civil society organisations working at the city scale to bind together diverse interests in pursuit of common agendas and the ‘common good’. For these citizens, the question ‘how can citizens become more engaged in urban governance?’ is not only a matter of consultation or representation, but a matter of organization. Alliance participants are creating their own infrastructure as a platform for proactive engagement on a range of urban policy priorities, rather than waiting for others to ask what they think. Forming alliances at the scale of the city itself is hoped to be a means to transcend the limitations of citizen participation through existing forms of sectional-, local-, or issues-based organising. It is also consciously intended as a means to move beyond oppositional campaigning against state-directed initiatives towards more proactive agenda setting.

The emergence of urban-scale alliances as forms of citizen engagement in an age of economic and cultural globalization might at first appear to present a conundrum – to what extent can cities serve as sites for effective citizenship when they are clearly enmeshed in processes that exceed their boundaries? A growing literature on the ‘right to the city’ insists on the on-going relevance of the city as a space and a subject of the political, even in a context of globalisation and ‘planetary urbanisation’. As influential theorists like Soja, Castells and Harvey would have it, a shared concern with the ‘right to the city’ can act as a ‘glue that binds’ diverse groups together into alliances that can be more powerful than the sum of their parts. Just as cities play a key role as sites for the production of global economic networks, so too they can become the bases from which citizens organise themselves to transform the processes and infrastructures that shape their everyday lives – including those processes and infrastructures that extend beyond the boundaries of the cities in which they live.

In their organisational form, urban alliances oriented towards common interests give practical expression to the political potential of the city that has been discussed in that literature. But of course, these alliances are not guaranteed to succeed in binding together diverse interests and transform the city. Indeed, evaluative questions of when, how and why alliances change their cities lie at the heart of this proposal. But internationally, their significance is growing.

For instance:

  • The London Citizens Living Wage campaigns have accredited over 1800 employers who now pay a wage above the minimum so people can afford to live in London;
  • BUILD in Baltimore secured a $30 million deal with John Hopkins University and Health System to employ local workers following the 2015 Baltimore Riots;
  • The Mumbai Alliance successfully fought for sanitation infrastructure in Mumbai’s informal housing areas;
  • One LA has spearheaded substantial increases in transport funding, including dedicated taxes for public transport.

Urban alliances exist across a diverse range of urban contexts. The recent literature on urban policy mobility has drawn attention to the ways that policies adapt and mutate as they move from one city to another. So too we can expect that the urban alliance model of citizen engagement will adapt and evolve in relation to the different circumstances in which urban inhabitants find themselves.

Key contextual conditions that will shape the nature of urban alliance formation and practice include:

  • The structures of metropolitan governance and planning (eg whether a city has local or metropolitan scale government, the existence of urban governance structures such as urban development corporations/commissions, the influence of policy settings determined beyond the urban scale like immigration, etc);
  • the machinery of these governance and planning frameworks (in particular, their mechanisms for citizen participation (or non-participation) in decision-making processes;
  • the ideologies of metropolitan governance and planning (eg the influence of neoliberalism in framing the construction of policy problems and solutions, enlisting the non-government sector as service providers, etc);
  • the local political history and culture common to that city (eg forms of political parties, culture of binding or open caucuses, historical legacy of citizen participatory processes),
  • the broader political-economy and demographics of the city (eg the influence of global flows of finance and labour, structures of participation in the labour market, etc);
  • the histories and alternative forms of citizen participation and organization (eg levels of participation in civil society organisations like trade unions, churches, resident action groups, political parties; histories of cooperation across these sectors; etc).

So, citizens seeking to influence urban outcomes through participation in urban alliances must adapt and respond to a range of contextual conditions that are not of their choosing. To put it another way, urban alliances ‘play the game’ of urban politics on a field with existing rules and a range of other players – some of whom might be potential allies, others of whom might be quite powerful and hostile! Nevertheless, in responding to these contextual conditions, they do exercise choice about the issues on which they will work together, the kinds of solutions they will work towards, and the tactics and strategies they will employ in seeking out ‘wins’ on their issues and even changes to the ‘rules of the game’.

In summation, urban alliances merit scholarly attention given their novelty and significance as an infrastructure of citizen engagement in urban governance