Thinking Differently About Peri-urban Infrastructures

In today’s post, Valeria Gaurneros-Meza dn Steven Griggs report on the results of a two day workshop on peri-urban infrastructures hosted by CURA at DMU on May 2017.

Whether we are travelling to work on a train, flushing a toilet, turning on a light, or sending an email, our daily lives depend upon repeated interactions with multiple and complex systems of infrastructure. Yet few of us regularly stop to consider our reliance on such infrastructure and how it shapes our daily life – unless it is one of those days when these complex systems break down and we are immediately exposed to the costs and frustrations of their absence.

But, as we are only too aware, many communities pay such costs every day. Some live next to airports or under flight paths, or experience the ‘threat’ of development to their quality of life. Others live without access to water or sanitation, often forced to develop their own informal practices to substitute for poor or lack of provision. In fact, it is often these very communities that pay the costs for the provision of infrastructure, as they are uprooted to make way for the likes of international airports, or suffer the environmental costs of the new mining practices upon which infrastructure development relies.

This unequal politics of infrastructure provision has been widely recognised. Infrastructures are far from neutral tools or technologies. They are governing instruments that shape collective and individual behaviour. They are the products of social struggles, exercises of power and forms of resistance. Their governance cannot therefore be divorced from questions of democracy, citizenship, social justice and economic equality, as well as rival claims to knowledge and expertise.

With this in mind, shouldn’t we all think a little more about the infrastructure that inhabits our everyday lives? And if so, how? How do we think beyond the debates over the economic and engineering value of infrastructural investment that abound?

These questions formed part of the agenda of a two-day workshop held in May 2017 on governance and conflict in urban and peri-urban infrastructures, sponsored by CURA and the British Academy. Of course, many have grappled with such questions. Here we set out the potential avenues of inquiry that emerged in the course of discussions between participants at the workshop.

Learning from difference

The two-day workshop brought together scholars based in Britain and Mexico to exchange their experiences of researching in and around infrastructure projects in Europe and Latin America. Its starting point was the importance of comparison and exploring how we might learn by comparing difference – how different scales, contexts, histories and framings of issues may shed light on what we take for granted or force us to reconsider our ways of thinking.

Recognising complexity

Much of our discussion underlined the need to grapple with complexity. Complexity comes in different shapes and forms. It was identified in the varied relationships between citizen groups and state agencies which cut across different levels of government and local and international non-governmental organisations and social networks. It comes with different histories and the need to understand legal and other institutional traditions (such as ethnicity and identity) in shaping the forms taken by contestation and resistance. Finally, it is to be found in the mechanisms and strategies used to withhold power by elites and by grassroots groups in challenging those centres of power. Grappling with complexity has to be intrinsic in any understanding of communication mechanisms (i.e. dialogue, consultation, diffusion of ideas/knowledge, resistance), where simultaneous practices are undertaken by individuals and groups to maintain or fight domination without recourse to coercion and repression.

Exploring conflict

The study of conflict through its myriad forms exposes critical junctures in the investment in new infrastructures. We need a broad understanding, from the development of knowledge and expertise as a form of control to the barbarism of violence and repression prompted by state actors in collusion with big national and transnational corporations. Indeed, the role and value of legal knowledge was foregrounded not only as a vehicle to study conflict between capital elites and local communities, but also the capacities of resistance, the redistribution of power in infrastructural investments (if any), and their broader interrelationship with the environment and climate change.

Investigating spatial geographies

The spatialisation of politics is widely recognised. Processes of infrastructure development bring into being new political spaces. But to what extent does infrastructural investment enhance or blur the linkages between the rural-urban divide? Although there have been important debates on land use, production, and circulation of goods and services to define urbanism, one pressing area of inquiry is the interrelationship between urban-rural actors in their contestation and resistance to landscapes impacted by urbanisation.

Everyday practices

Infrastructures can provoke moments of conflict and crisis. But we should not ignore the everyday practices that surround infrastructures or compensate for them. These practices impact upon changes in production, consumption and the political institutions of localities experiencing major infrastructures. This focus on everyday practice and knowledge may well open up alternative opportunities for local tiers of government to challenge national decisions that have been overridden by global economic interests and for social mobilizations to potentially connect with broader environmental and social justice demands vis-à-vis economic compensations.

A new research agenda: infrastructures as political objects

Each of these new directions or avenues suggest the importance of viewing infrastructures as ‘political objects’ (to borrow from the recent study from Cole and Payre of ‘cities as political objects’). ‘Seeing’ infrastructure investment in this way leads us to spend time exploring the political discourse of infrastructures to understand: the contextualised rationales behind ethics, corruption and illicitness; governmental decisions and the simultaneous use of informal arrangements alongside expert knowledge; and the type of relationships and spaces built between social mobilisations, the state and the private sector. This offers us a future research agenda that cuts across global north and south dichotomies – an agenda that this network of researchers would like to pursue in the next few years.

The Workshop Participants

Vanesa Castan-Broto (Sheffield University)

Mercè Cortina-Oriol (DMU)

Dan Durrant (Bartlett School of Planning, UCL)

Jonathan Davies (DMU)

Adam Fishwick (DMU)

Armelle Gouritin (FLACSO-Mexico)

Steven Griggs (DMU)

Valeria Guarneros-Meza (DMU)

Graeme Hayes (Aston University)

Ibrahim Has (DMU)

David Howarth (Essex University)

Ernesto Isunza (CIESAS-Golfo)

Marcela Torres (FLACSO-Mexico)

Gisela Zaremberg (FLACSO-Mexico)

This blogpost was written by Valeria Guarneros-Meza and Steven Griggs, CURA members. The authors are grateful to the workshop participants for their contribution to the ideas developed in this post. All interpretations are of course the responsibility of the authors.

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Austerity Diasporas – Households in Crisis: Austerity, Migration and Family in Portuguese London

In today’s post Lisa Rodan introduces a series of publications on her ongoing PhD research into how Portuguese migrants understand their lives and experiences in relation to the political and social changes wrought by the 2008 financial crisis and the austerity measures that followed. For the past 12 months Lisa has been carrying out ethnographic interviews with university educated, Portuguese people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s in London, supplemented by time spent in Portugal where she has been lucky to meet some of their families. In a series of posts Lisa will share her initial analysis of some key themes arising from her fieldwork data, which she began to collect in June 2016 just after the Brexit vote. These encounters have ranged from one-off interviews to valued friendships and time spent with each other’s families. The content of the series will be a very close reading of  fieldwork notes in their raw form. Lisa welcomes any input and suggestions from interested parties.

Today’s blog, the first in a four-part series, will focus on social changes in Portugal leading up to the 2011 austerity measures. I will continue next month by reviewing how migration has shaped Portuguese history and what makes this latest wave different. Part three will look at London and how Portuguese migrants exist within it as a changing, global city in a time of European-wide austerity. Finally, I will discuss predictions for life after Brexit and how my research participants view recent positive changes in Portugal in terms of their own futures.

The following blog post is the first in the series on austerity and family – on the theme of “the changing role of the family / state in Portugal”.

“Things were going well, there was so much to do in Portugal, people were positive about their lives, their futures and then the crisis happened.” Carlos, 45

Carlos, 45, Lisbon, teacher turned IT consultant. Cecilia, 26, Vila Real, nurse. Sofia, 35, Porto, scientist[1]. Different worlds and stories but there is one thing they can all agree on- that they are a product of a ‘golden age’ of social and economic expansion in Portugal throughout the 1980s and 90s that no longer exists. These are the children of Europe, making their way in a very different world from the one their parents aspired to on their behalf. This was a world defined by prosperity, with education- via a proliferation of new universities all over the country- at its centre. The graduates of this expanded educational system form the backbone of a new middle class who found themselves with no place in the Portugal during the first decade of the 21st century.

Changing expectations is the key concept here. Values had transformed from the days of the Salazar dictatorship (1926-1974), and in the years following Portugal’s 1986 admission to the EU. Education was the key to an exciting new world where, for the first time, a ‘good life’ was accessible within Portugal, as long as one worked and studied hard for it. A long tradition of migration in search of a better standard of living, albeit through low paying jobs, was being turned on its head in favour of a prosperous future at home.

This new middle class, many of them the children of migrants who had returned to Portugal during the ‘golden years’, saw their expectations for a life different to that of their parents diminish before their eyes when austerity measures crippled the Portuguese economy in 2011. The industries worst hit were represented by thousands of unemployed graduates in nursing, teaching and construction- graduates who would now join the traditionally less educated migrant groups in seeking their fortune elsewhere.

The older ones I’ve spoken to are still angry. They remember what life was like before, although their anger has significantly diminished in the six years since the hardest repercussions of austerity were felt. However, it is the under 40s who have crossed my path more, and they define their experience as fleeing the prospect rather than experience of unemployment or stagnant careers. Expectations have once again changed in the ten years following the financial crash and again and again I am confronted by stoicism, a confidence in their ability as Europeans to find a way around the challenges of Brexit, but most of all a hope for the future rooted in trust in the same educational capital that prompted them to seek a world away from family and friends back home.

These graduates in their 20s and 30s encompass the values of a generation raised with Erasmus exchanges, travel opportunities and an affinity for the English language that, they explain, contrasts them to their parents, whose clinging to job security above all else is alien to what they have been brought up to believe. Nevertheless, the two sets of values are inexorably linked, not just through the obvious affective family bonds but through ongoing support networks. These networks are both financial, allowing young people to undertake internships, language classes or simply the space to save and figure out what to do next, and emotional, communication technology offering an opportunity for transnational connectivity in a way hitherto unexperienced by previous generations of migrants.

But what are the main differences between the EU generation in London and their parents, the children of the dictatorship? The former overwhelmingly present their experience as providing hope, meaning and pride through success (or the potential to succeed) in a career which is both internationally transferable and offers recognition of the individual’s talents. The irony at work here is the root of such hopes in the earlier prosperity wrought by neoliberal expansion which could only temporarily mask the inability of the economic and political framework of periphery countries to support the excesses of global finance and failures of the monetary union. What we are seeing now are the social repercussions of expectations of access to global consumerist comforts and existential fulfilment without the need to migrate. For many, this is now only attainable through planning a future outside Portugal.

Those Portuguese who recall pre-EU days defined by lack of both consumerism and the welfare state claim the younger generation don’t know the truth of how hard life can be and undervalue security. Those who have migrated and remained abroad describe their home country lovingly but as being devoid of opportunities befitting their qualifications and experience- a country mired in a system based on nepotism that undermined ‘EU values’ of efficiency, prosperity and merit. The young people I have spoken to refer to a favours system based on pre-revolution mentalities where contacts, rather than ability, are the key to getting ahead and have led to a country stuck in the past, where aspirational and intelligent young people migrate, leaving the same old names in charge.

Lisa Rodan is a third year PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent where she is working with three colleagues on an ESRC funded project entitled Household Survival in Crisis: Austerity and Relatedness in Greece and Portugal.

[1] All names have been changed

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Popular Democracy – Response by Adrian Bua

In this post Adrian Bua continues CURA’s third book debate by replying to Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza’s first post outlining the argument in their recent book “Popular Democracy: the Paradox of Participation”.

Popular Democracy deals with an important question for contemporary debates on democratisation – what is the democratic potential of participatory governance in a context of deepening neo-liberalism? To answer this the book develops a history of changes in public administration theory and practice, and then focuses specifically on the origins and travel of Participatory Budgeting (PB) from Porto Alegre in Brazil to Cordoba in Europe and Chicago in North America. In doing so, the authors draw on years of research into participatory governance including ethnographies in the European and North American case studies.

On one hand, Popular Democracy tells a story of the neo-liberal usurpation of what was originally a radical and innovative attempt to revive the socialist project in the context of disillusionment with the pseudo-socialist regimes of Eastern Europe and elsewhere. However, as is clear from the author’s first post, as PB travelled the globe, it became disconnected from its original attempt to provide a collective space for the pursuit of distributive justice, to one oriented towards the individual expression of preferences (for an overview of this process of disconnection see here). On the other hand, the book also tells a more positive story about possibilities opened up by PB. In this post I invite the authors to elaborate upon the implications of their arguments for (a) the potential and limits of institutional design, and (b) the relationship between social struggle and participatory governance, and the role of the former in generating opportunities for empowerment.

First, a key argument of the book is that institutional design matters. Thus, as Ernesto and Gianpaolo argue in their initial entry, if participation is to be a genuinely democratising force, it should be clearly linked to binding decisions of state administration, which itself must adopt a participatory ‘modus operandi’  to accommodate participatory inputs. For reasons I won’t repeat here, but have summarised in another review, this was achieved in Porto Alegre – which turns minds to the claim that processes and institutions can be designed by elites to empower citizens. This is a key tenet of “top-down democratisation”.  I would like to ask the authors, firstly, to what extent is success down to the technicalities of getting the institutional design “right”, or is it more to do with politics? The second question is about how far institutional design can go – to what extent can a well-designed Participatory Budget influence fundamental questions about political economy, including how resources are distributed; where economic power lies? The challenge here might be that there is space for participatory governance in times of plenty, but it hits the buffers when resources are scarce and there is more conflict over both the size of budgets and distribution.

International research into collaborative governance led by us at CURA broaches the question of what happens to collaborative practice and ideology during capitalist busts – in times such as the present one, of low growth and austerity. Our cases vary. To give two examples, in the UK it is clear that participatory governance has lost the normative power it once had amongst local state actors. It has become a tool for the local state to manage the consequences of, and adapt to, austerity and scarcity – a far cry away from the empowering and democratising claims associated with it in earlier times. However, in Barcelona, municipal government is experimenting with radicalised forms of participatory governance. Although hopeful, this experiment is severely limited. It is a crosscurrent, even if a strong one, to a hostile Spanish state which continues to deepen neo-liberalism. Still, the fact that such experiments are taking place in various Spanish cities indicates a more generalised ambition for a more participatory democracy and an alternative, more socially just, political economy.

The experience in Barcelona, and Spain more broadly, is rooted in the oppositional and pre-figurative politics of post-crash social movements based around the 15-M demonstrations. The influence of PB upon these social movements is alluded to in the book, which argues that despite their clear limitations, the experience of US and Spanish PB ignited a radicalism which lived on in mass mobilisations such as occupy in the US and the indignados in Spain. It evoked new political subjects and expanded social imaginaries beyond the boundaries of representation in ways that contributed to the alternatives proposed by these movements. This is an interesting argument because critics of elite democracy promotion (or ‘governance-driven democratisation’ for others) argue that it forecloses, and diverts energy away from, more critical and bottom up forms of participation and struggle which have historically been perhaps the main democratising force. Given the different outcomes observed in our own research, at which point, and why, do the authors think that the demands they made translated into this substantive reform agenda within formal political institutions? At the level of direct participants this seems counter-intuitive – surely, taking part in the kinds of individualised, zero-sum processes the authors describe in their initial post must be a disappointing and disempowering experience? I would like to ask the authors to expand on how is it that more radical and democratic subjects emerge from this, particularly in light of the much-discussed diminution out of the Porto-Alegre model?

This question brings me to my final point.  Ernesto and Gianpaolo’s account points to a non-dichotomous, even complementary, relationship between top-down and bottom-up spaces of participation. Municipal governments like Barcelona en Comu and Ahora Madrid evidence this kind of relationship – they are rooted in grassroots oppositional politics, but now engage in institutional design and policy making. Their move into the state means a move “from protest to proposition”. At the end of the book the authors argue that the challenge for the future is to make the most of the critical energies summoned by participatory experiences like PB. I would like to close by asking what advice the authors have for radical administrations currently experimenting with participatory governance.  Do they think that this participatory milieu in urban governance can be shored up and avoid neo-liberal co-option – and what is the role, if any, for critical and oppositional forms of participation and social struggle in this?

One respondent from the fieldwork in Barcelona (see p. 17 here), put the contextual challenges faced by this project well:

“The tools are very tiny and the expectations are great. How can the City Council of a city that is globally located on the map of the relevant cities in the world, which attracts migratory flows, capital flows… how can it manage a power that it does not have? The City Council does not have the power of the city. It is a very small portion of power”.

Adrian Bua is a researcher and a core member of CURA.

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Urban Futures Podcast – Tackling City Decline with Andy Pike

In this second edition of the Urban Futures podcast we talk to Andy Pike, Professor of Local and Regional Development and Director of the Centre for Urban and Regional Development studies, at Newcastle University about recent work he and his colleagues have carried out into city decline in the UK.

You can download the podcast on soundcloud and itunes.

The Declining Cities report, analyses city decline in the UK and reviews international experience for learning. The research seeks to address a gap in urban research agendas that have tended to focus on successful, thriving cities rather than the situation of and policies needed in cities coping with relative decline. The report develops an index of city decline and a typology of relatively declining cities which is used to measure the scale and nature of city decline in the UK. It also includes a review of UK and international literature on policy responses to city decline as well as an assessment of the implications of the evidence for declining UK cities.

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Patterns of Neoliberalisation and Resistance

Professor Jonathan Davies introduces a new paper “Austerity Urbanism: Patterns of Neoliberalisation and Resistance in Six Cities of Spain and the UK”. The paper is co-authored with Ismael Blanco and published in Environment and Planning A. The article is fully open access and can be downloaded at the link above.

The relationship between austerity, neoliberalism and the governance of cities has been the source of intense debate since the 2008 crash. We develop a fresh perspective, through a six-case comparative analysis of austerity urbanism in Spain (Barcelona, Donostia, Lleida and Madrid) and the UK (Cardiff and Leicester).

We begin by looking at a continuum of perspectives on neoliberalism, from thinkers like Perry Anderson who see it as a globalising hegemonic strategy of historically unprecedented influence, to urbanists, who see it as infinitely variegated and even disappearing when studied under a fine-grain analytical lens. Our argument is that if, in the spirit of critical realism, we treat social life as stratified and scaled, then these analytical polarities are not mutually exclusive. Divergence at one level of analysis can underpin convergence at another – and indeed vice-versa.  Convergence and divergence should therefore be understood in relational terms.

Following this intuition, our central argument is – perhaps unsurprisingly – that culturally, politically and economically diverse austerity regimes tend to strengthen neoliberalism in both Spain and the UK.  Urban austerity regimes are far more strongly embedded in UK cities than in Spain, bearing witness to the enduring shadow cast over local politics by the Thatcherite shock of the 1980s.  Yet, in cities where anti-austerity struggles are highly developed, as in Barcelona and Madrid, the potential for urban transformations is both tantalizing and fraught with difficulties.  At the same time, the breadth of regional variation in Spain leads us to follow Patrick Le Gales (2016) in asking where “neoliberalism” begins and ends. Donostia, for example, retains a strong commitment to public welfare, made possible by the relative economic strength and autonomy of the Basque region and the durability of local welfarist traditions across the electoral divide. Hence, while explaining how local varieties of neoliberalism strengthen neoliberalism as a global project, we also recognize limits to the concept and the potential for overcoming it through resistance grounded in urban politics.

Theoretically, we follow a regime approach, developing a heuristic analysis based on Clarence N. Stone’s “iron law”. Stone (2015) states that for any governing regime to succeed, resources must be commensurate with the agenda pursued. This simple formulation provides a helpful lens for bringing our diverse case studies into a meaningful conversation with one another, around the question of what alliances are forged among which actors, mobilizing what resources in pursuit of which goals – and with what limitations?  Applying this lens allows us to develop an inductive comparison around a thematically structured discussion of austerity governance and resistance in our six cities. Through this approach we benchmark the powers and limitations of neoliberal austerity regimes.

We finally consider the implications of our study for conceptualizing neoliberalism and for further developing urban regime analysis in the spirit of Stone’s iron law. The paper concludes with eight propositions to inform future studies of austerity urbanism.  We hope readers find them useful and stimulating.

Jonathan Davies is Director of CURA and Professor of Critical Policy Studies at De Montfort University

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How the world’s first Social Impact Bond drained public resources, and why the market model fails forward

In today’s blog, Robert Ogman argues that success stories on the social investment market are hiding inconvenient truths, and require honest rethink about such risky and expensive policy experiments

In 2009, when governments took on enormous debts to rescue the crumbling financial sector, they sought to address the fiscal crisis by slashing funding to the public sector in the turn to austerity. The conservatives called for a “Big Society” to fill the gap for scaled-back social protections, but quickly realising that nothing comes for free, sought to link the resource-weak social sector to capital markets ‘awash with liquidity’ (IMF), through the Cabinet Office’s new “social investment bank”, Big Society Capital. Private surpluses, could be ‘mobilised’ to offset government funding gaps, through loans to civil society groups coping with deepening social crises. In the ‘age of austerity’ (Cameron), the Social Investment Market is a magic bullet: It should offset fiscal problems by securing new pools of capital, address social problems by expanding the social sector, and make capitalism responsible by directing investors towards products with societal benefit. So were the praises sung by the father of venture capitalism, Sir Ronald Cohen, now involved in Big Society Capital, the Social Finance organization, and a host of ‘impact’-oriented initiatives.

Central to this broad policy initiative is the Social Impact Bond, a mechanism to address three interlinked problems, namely, to create ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘shared value’ as a new economic model, to offset public fiscal deficits with private investment, and to ‘solve society’s most intractable social problems’ by expanding preventative services. This experiment was tested in Peterborough as the world’s first SIB, bringing together market, government, and societal actors seeking to ‘break the cycle of reincarceration’. Investors provided £5 million as working capital for organisations, who adapted an anti-recidivism programme by St. Giles Trust , to reduce reconvictions of people released from short-term sentences at the local prison. If it reduced reconviction by 7.5% compared to a control group, the Ministry of Justice anticipated related reductions in its budget. It hoped that lower court, police, prison, and other criminal justice expenses could amount to up to £90m. If the project succeeds, a portion of these savings would be used to repay investors plus dividend. If it missed its mark, investors risked losing their capital. The idea was that this would “transfer the [financial] risk to the investors”, as Social Finance writes.

A central pillar of SIBs is the fiscal argument. As project manager of the Peterborough project and major driver of U.K. SIBs, Social Finance describes as a “precondition of a successful [SIB]”, that the savings are larger than the service intervention costs. In a time of fiscal constraint, the SIBs were meant to ‘do more with less’, downsizing prisons, and in doing so, ‘paying for themselves’. They were sold to the electorate under the mantra of presenting “no risk to the taxpayer”. In fact, without such fiscal pressures, one might ask whether this policy would have gotten off the ground at all, let alone accelerate an international diffusion of nearly 90 projects in 19 countries in the value of £300, according to Social Finance.

The final results for the Peterborough project came in this week achieving a 9% reduction in recidivism among its 2,000 person target group. In their statement, Social Finance praised the reductions in reoffending and the repayment of investors. The Ministry of Justice played the same tune and Gordon Brown praised the project in the same manner. Yet, as advocates were patting themselves on the backs, they were also moving the goal posts, with negative implications for the public. The new storyline neglected any reference to fiscal issues. This covered up the inconvenient truth that the Peterborough project would not pay for itself, as Rand wrote in a report for the Ministry of Justice. Absent savings, investors would effectually be paid through new expenditure, from tax payer dollars in the Ministry of Justice’s budget, and public money from the Big Lottery Fund, who rescued the project with a multi-million pound subsidy. While the project was supposed to allow government to ‘mobilise private capital for public good’, the Peterborough experiment appears to inverse this, compelling the government to “fill the funding gap for UK social impact bonds”, when they fail to create expected savings. This fiasco is just the latest example of a blunders associated with the uncritical approach to market-style governance.

While mistakes are common in policy innovations, there appears little concern to reassess the project. Instead, new efforts are being made to shore up the model despite its problems. Anticipating future failures, the Cabinet Office and the Big Lottery Fund conjured up £60 million of special “outcome funds” to subsidise investor returns when SIBs fail to create anticipated efficiency gains.

But now one really has to ask what the fiscal logic is for these projects. If SIBs were partially designed to help government out of a fiscal jam, now they’re placing more pressure on the budget, simply to pay investor returns on projects they’ve contributed no social value to. One wonders why the government should continue a project meant to reduce fiscal pressure, when it is now increasing expenditure with no added value?

So long as the government continues to cut public resources, and refuses to draw in revenue through taxation of concentrated private wealth, we’ll likely see more of such unhelpful market governance schemes, with attractive language but poor outcomes.

While many supporters of SIBs view them sympathetically, they do so because they would like to see more investment in social protections, more market actor involvement in societally beneficial endeavors, and more private contribution to the rebalancing of public finances. But the Peterborough problems show that joining market governance to ‘public responsibility’ are a weak compromise, they can inhibit these goals, and may produce contradictory results. The shortcomings of the Peterborough pilot require more than a tinkering with existing market governance models, and instead an honest rethinking of broader policy directions, asking how the economy may be more adequately ‘re-embedded’ in structures of public accountability.

Robert Ogman is a member of CURA and a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics and Public Policy at De Montfort University.

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Dissemination Report: Governing in and Against Austerity

We are delighted to publish our dissemination report for the Austerity Governance project. It is titled Governing in and Against Austerity and provides an overview and reports initial findings from our eight case studies of austerity governance in Athens, Baltimore, Barcelona, Dublin, Leicester, Melbourne, Montreal and Nantes.

We warmly welcome comments and feedback, you can download the document on the hyperlink above.

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Popular Democracy by Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza

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In this post Ernesto Ganuza and Gianpaolo Baiocchi begin our third instalment of CURA’s Book Debates series by outlining the main argument in their recently co-authored book “Popular Democracy: the Paradox of Participation” – where they trace the development of participatory governance, focusing specifically on the paradigmatic process of Participatory Budgeting, its origins in the Southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, and its subsequent globalization as it travelled to European and North American cities. In a forthcoming post, CURA’s Adrian Bua will write a response and Ernesto and Gianpaolo will close the debate with a reply.

No one can escape the fact that we live in an era where calls for participation are ubiquitous. Participation is seen as the solution to the failings of democracy and a weakened civic spirit. Today, political actors, from specialists to politicians and administrators, compete to bear the heraldry of participation. We are talking about a new political hegemony.

This participatory era rests on new kinds of participatory processes that are different in spirit to those in the 70’s. Participation nowadays focusses on the public in general, in the form of deliberative spaces in which individuals, rather than civic associations, are invited to reflect on public affairs, and, in many cases to make policy decisions.  A direct form of participation is invoked that breaks with the tradition of relegating participation to a mere measure of public opinion.

However, viewed historically, this expansion of participation is somewhat paradoxical. Participation has ceased to be a counter-power like that of the 1970’s, and has become part of the functioning of administration and formal political power. It is a process of top-down democratization. Beginning with the revolts of the seventies against centralized bureaucracies, public administration has found in participation a faithful ally in its attempt to become more proximate to society, and realise the need for the public legitimation of politics. Participatory rhetoric has changed the hallmark with which it was usually presented – from prostesting, to proposing. Participation in the new spaces is not a matter of oppositional reclamation, but of constructive proposition.

Criticisms of this historical process have by no means been delayed. Both the content and context of this new political hegemony have been linked to the predatory spirit of neoliberalism. After all, participation’s logic is close to neoliberalism’s entrepreneurial spirit – do it yourself! This criticism is most forceful in a context in which the political impact of participation in cities is doubted. Just when there is no city in the world that does not invite citizens to participate, participation has lost its social justice focus, and provides spaces for consumerist disputes instead.

Faced with this all-engulfing neoliberal wave, the book explores the birth and journey of one of the most emblematic participatory processes; that of participatory budgeting. As a metaphor for this new political hegemony, we have seen how the travel of participation leads to its trivialization and disengagement from political processes as it lands on new shores. In this process, full of contradictions and popular struggles between lay citizens and elites such as experts, bureaucrats and politicians, the dilemma of participation’s neo-liberalization comes into view.

The problem of participation lies in thinking about the link between opinion and power only in terms of the relationship between citizens and representatives, without taking into account how political institutions work. Participation then becomes limited to a process for revealing public preferences. As good as that may be for some, it forgets all the second-order issues involved in politics: priorities must be defined in a (democratic) setting characterised by the equality of all and the existence of finite resources. It is therefore not enough to count proposals, nor to turn participation into a zero-sum game. You win, I lose. Information and debate are needed before deciding. A practical and material concept of the equality that offers everybody a real voice is needed. Therefore, it is not surprising that if we understand participation as an expression of individual preferences, in this context of finite resources, participatory processes become platforms for the selfish pursuit of individual interests.

Participation aims to build bridges between politics and society, but when it is disconnected from institutions it can degenerate into fatuous disputes. In other words, if participation is to claim a legitimate presence in contemporary society it will need to be linked to the workings of public administration. To achieve this, it is necessary to develop administrative reforms that envisage a participatory modus operandi. Otherwise participation will always be peripheral to both politics and social developments – and will thus fail to resolve democracy’s problems and the need for the public legitimation of political decisions.

Gianpolo Baiocchi is associate professor of individualized studies and sociology, as well as director of the Urban Democracy Lab and Civic Engagement at the, Gallatin School, New York University.

Ernesto Ganuza is a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Social Studies, Spanish National Research Council (IESA- CSIC) in Cordoba, Spain.

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Interrogating Urban Crisis

In today’s post, Professor Jonathan Davies explains the arguments developed in the introductory piece to a special issue of Urban Studies on the governance, contestation and critique of urban crises. The paper, co-authored by Jonathan, Mustafa Bayırbağ  and Sybille Münch, is open access until 25th August 2017.  

The central problematic addressed in our framing paper, is that the meaning and application of “urban crisis” is far too nebulous and imprecise.  The paper seeks to address this problem by opening up the concept of urban crisis to critical scrutiny.  We start by exploring how urban ‘crisis-talk’ tends to over-extend the concept in ways that can render it shallow or even meaningless. We then look at different ways in which the terminology of urban crisis is employed in the literature and throughout our collection of essays. We thereby disclose six framings of urban crisis, tabulated on page 2026. These framings are structure, alienation, politics, construction, boundaries and indeterminacy.  We suggest that each framing is linked to a specific set of analytical and political problematics. We hope researchers find these framings and the problematics to which we think they give rise useful in developing refined approaches to urban crisis, particularly in studies of the governance and contestation of austerity urbanism.

The Interrogating Urban Crisis conference was funded through the Urban Studies/Urban Studies Foundation Seminar Series /Competition. http://www.urbanstudiesfoundation.org. We are very grateful for their invaluable support.

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Urban Futures Podcast – the Grounded City with Karel Williams

We are delighted to launch CURA’s “Urban Futures” podcast series with this edition on the “Grounded Citymanhattan-67474_960_720” with Karel Williams, Professor of Accounting and Political Economy at the University of Manchester.

If you use iTunes click here to listen and download the podcast, otherwise you can use soundcloud – and remember to leave a rating / comments!

Some more information below.

In his and his colleagues work on the “Grounded City” Karel argues that the dominance of theories of urban agglomeration in urban policy making reflect a belated recognition of “the urban” by neo-liberal economists. However, Karel and his colleagues argue that there are fundamental deficiencies in the agglomeration approach which rise from the imperialism, and hubris, of classical economics in social science. The “Grounded City” offers an alternative policy imaginary which is interdisciplinary in nature but draws principally on the urban historiography of Fernand Braudel and other scholars such as Charles Tilly – literatures which agglomeration theories simply fail to recognise.

 

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