Rethinking Citizen Participation in Urban Development. Part 1: A theoretical framework

Protests in Berlin. 24 March 1981 (Photo: Michael Kipp/Umbruch Bildarchiv.

by Prof Ares Kalandides

A discussion about citizen participation is nothing less than a discussion about democracy. Whatever we do, no matter how closely we try to focus and frame the issue, we come back to our basic understanding of democracy: What are the mechanisms through which citizens shape political decisions that concern them?

In a recent article for the special issue of the Journal of Place Management and Development (Vol 11 Issue 2) on Participatory Placemaking, (you can access the article for free here) I have proposed various approaches to citizen participation in urban development, taking Berlin as a case study: participation as an institutional arrangement; participation as rights; participation in the public sphere and participation as practice: 

(a) Participation as institutional arrangement can be understood as an element of governance or more specifically as a part of the decision-making process in urban planning. Here, emphasis is placed on institutional frameworks, methods and formats, procedures, the spaces and times of participation, as well as on its formalization. Participation mostly moves inside institutionally defined limits.

(b) Participation as rights is more than a procedure; it is a right to be claimed by citizens themselves and is thus linked to citizenship. Social movements are then a particular form of participation, where collective action leads to claim-making. “The right to the city”, in its more radical reading, challenges the status quo, going beyond the given spaces for participation, demanding fundamental political change.

(c) Being in and constituting the public sphere(s) means to participate. Exclusion from participation can refer to different fields (exclusion from work, public space, the public realm, etc.); it can take place along different fault lines (gender, ethnicity, race, sexuality, etc.); or it can be seen negatively in spatial terms, as segregation. “Subaltern counterpublics” can challenge a hegemonic public sphere, claiming not only participation in it but also the constitution of another public sphere on their own terms.

(d) Participation can be something that takes place even in the absence of or even against institutional frameworks. People participate in a more or less explicitly politicised way through their practices – from humble practices of the everyday to political practices of solidarity or engagement. This includes different types of ad hoc participation, practices of collective action, volunteering work and placemaking.

Behind all of the above readings of participation lies the concept of citizenship, as “the right to have rights” to use Hanna Arendt’s expression. But theories underpinning citizenship are also diverse and conflicting: liberal, communitarian, civic republican etc. I follow Chantal Mouffe’s ‘radical democratic’ approach, in which citizenship “can only be adequately formulated within a problematic that conceives of the social positions, constructed within specific discourses and always precariously and temporarily sutured at the intersection of those subject positions (Mouffe, 1993:71[1]). This dynamic understanding of citizenship allows us to conceptualize participation as a right to claim and (re-)negotiate rights – even to conceptualize rights not as pre-given, but rather created through the formulation of claims. This also allows us to understand civil society not only as a benign, apolitical body, but as a function of society with its own internal fault lines, contradictions and struggles. This conceptualization goes beyond the institutionalized forms of participation: it includes radical, anti-institutional social movements (such as the squatter movement), but also everyday practices that challenge the status quo of political order.

I do not want to imply that institutional arrangements don’t matter – quite the opposite. What I’m trying to say is that neither institutional frameworks nor radical claims are fixed, but are in a dynamic flux, where they constantly influence each other.

“a political body that wants to take participation seriously needs to consider its relations with (radical) social movements instead of fending itself off.”

However, what I do want to stress is that a political body that wants to take participation seriously needs to consider its relations with (radical) social movements instead of fending itself off. The history of Berlin – which I barely touch upon in my JPMD article – is full of this permeability between local political bodies and urban social movements. It is while researching this history of participatory politics in Berlin that I realized that I have to go all the way back to May 1968 in order to understand how it is embedded in the city’s political culture. This is, however, the topic of a different journal article, which still needs work.

Next week, in Part 2 of this blog entry, I will consider a possible analytical framework for citizen participation.


[1] Mouffe, C. (1993), The Return of the Political. London: Verso.