Conflicting partnerships: Governance and urban challenges

Slum Construction

Cities change and evolve constantly, and they do not act as a coherent entity. They are “co-produced.” To think of co-production as a concept should help us to think of a sustainable urban policy and action - shaped and developed by constructive conflict.

Cities as complex actor constellations

First of all, we need to acknowledge that cities and urban areas are not just concentrations of problems to be managed. We should think of cities first and foremost as hubs of co-existence and catalysts for mediation and integration of difference. They are sites of experimentation and societal innovation in which new identities and modes of living are being conceived and tested. This helps us to remember that cities are shaped by the rationalities and actions by a multitude of actors. They change and evolve constantly, and they do not act as a coherent entity or speak with one coherent voice. Cities are “co-produced.”

Urban knowledge is co-produced

If “co-production” is vital to understand cities and how they work and change, we would need to question our concept of “urban knowledge”. This bears particular significance to me as architect, urban planner and urban researcher. Our profession very easily leans towards a certain professional arrogance. As ‘experts’ we usually consider ourselves to be holding the key to urban knowledge.  Instead, we should acknowledge that urban knowledge is co-produced too. Rather than relying on our technical expert knowledge, we need to apply transdisciplinary formats in which different approaches, languages and concepts can come together and add value to each other.

Here, the knowledge and expertise of residents, local initiatives, and civil society as a whole, as well as public sector employees and of course technicians, academics etc. can be given the appropriate value. To achieve truly “integrated solutions” as demanded by the New Urban Agenda we need to transcend traditional hierarchisations and sectoralisations of knowledge and recognize that they are always power and value permeated. We need to co-produce knowledge and find ways of applying this co-produced knowledge to new forms and models of governance. A positive sign is that research funding is slowly becoming more open towards inter- and transdisciplinarity. Our universities need to become much more gutsy to experiment in what we might call laboratory approaches to building better understandings of cities and urbanisation. This conference attempts to be such a laboratory: transdisciplinary and seeking to transgress North South dichotomies.

Conflictual co-production partnerships

Co-production, however, is not a harmonious process and the kinds of partnerships it entails are neither silent nor conflict free. Often co-production takes place in the harsh realities in which many, if not most, citizens around the world live. Housing policies and “Right to the City” to be discussed in this conference exemplify this.

Many government initiatives in housing do not – often despite their own proclaimed intentions – focus on the housing needs of all. Millions of citizens are therefore left with no alternative than to build their own shelters. From the 1-2billion new urban dwellers we expect to move into urban areas by 2030, most have no chance of benefiting from a government initiated housing scheme or formal market offers.

They will construct their own houses outside of any planned framework and are left to struggle to hold on to their homes within uncertain legal and political contexts and with the constantly looming threat of demolition and displacement. The same applies to often dysfunctional urban services that fail to provide (whether in public hand or privatized) adequate waste or mobility solutions. Here, conventional urban governance systems clearly do not cope and by default rely on the urban poor to do what they themselves are unable or unwilling to do. Between self-provisioning of the urban poor and state institutions – a new space of interaction opens up in which new kinds of co-production partnerships emerge.

It is a conflictual terrain, often only the result of pressures from civil society and grass root movements, reflecting Vanessa Watson’s conceptualisation of “co-production”. Watson reminds us that we need to acknowledge conflict and power as omnipresent within any form of “partnering” between state and civil society. Rather than pretending that these can be “harmonious” as the notion “collaboration” suggests, coproduction partnerships are always characterized by antagonism and conflict. Civil society increasingly demands to initiate and co-author actions beyond formalised and bureaucratized participation. This is a conflictual process, which has many experts – including those in my own profession - deeply worried and confused.

Co-producing “sustainability”?

Co-production, however, does not necessarily lead to sustainability. Some may argue that it is part of neoliberal shifts and restructurings where under-resourced austerity governments simply pass on responsibility for housing and urban services to civil society. Some scholars argue that what emerges in self-provisioning is a rather precarious, and increasingly Darwinist space of survival.

While paying lip-service to “participation” and “enabling citizens” government failures and deep structural injustices in our society are being glossed over. We may also worry about the degree to which government roles become increasingly outsourced and marketized, often leaving only those activities that do not promise immediate profit for civil society to pick up. With a global resurge in nationalism, populism, centralisation and repression the space of co-production may indeed be shrinking.

But there is also the counter argument. Civil society roles in new partnerships may truly make policies and actions more democratic, accountable and transparent, spreading benefits and gains more evenly beyond market logics. Civil society initiatives, if acting strategically and networking effectively can indeed develop into transformative movements, leading to great inclusion and increasing the sense of self-worth and self-value of many citizens otherwise all too easily ignored.

Urban social protest movements in the Global South and North have become correctives of ill-conceived government prioritization and action, forcing important sustainability issues such as environmental protection, gender inequality, racial discrimination or poverty into the policy field. In most positive cases, paradigm shifts in policy or aspirational changes within society were achieved. This conference helps us to learn from these conflicts and study cases where co-production cases truly became transformative in a positive sense, where new ground was opened up and the notion of “partnership” between state and civil society was genuinely redefined.

This conference title ends with a question mark: “Co-producing Sustainable Cities”? because this is precisely what we want to debate, the potentials and also risks triggered by new and unusual partnerships involving state and civil society actors.

Co-production and the New Urban Agenda

The language of the New Urban Agenda offers some interesting wording and concepts, some derived from civil society struggles, which seems to suggest recognition of the crucial role of civil society to achieve sustainability. Within the section “Our shared vision” for example the NUA states:

“We envisage cities that… are participatory, promote civic engagement, engender a sense of belonging and ownership among all their inhabitants, prioritize safe, inclusive, accessible, green, and quality public spaces, friendly for families, enhance social and intergenerational interactions, cultural expressions, and political participation, as appropriate, and foster social cohesion, inclusion, and safety in peaceful and pluralistic societies, where the needs of all inhabitants are met, recognizing the specific needs of those in vulnerable situations…”

Within the section “Our principles and commitments“ the NUA acknowledges that

“Among the fundamental drivers of change…. local-national and multi-stakeholder partnerships…[are] mechanisms that empower and include urban stakeholders”.

While this suggests recognition and awareness of civil society roles as partners, at no point does the document specify how these partnerships can work in reality. Here the NUA remains vague. What should a post-NUA ideal architecture look like? Is there a place for civil society at global, national, region/ local levels to co-steer, co-design, co-monitor together with urban governments progress towards 2030?

This conference can perhaps help us to think through these questions and raise concerns and demands towards an implementation of the NUA, which includes effective and just state-civil society partnerships. To think of co-production as a concept should help us to think of a renewed “social contract“ towards more people-centred and therefore also sustainable urban policy and action - shaped and developed by constructive conflict.

This article is part of our dossier Habitat III - Sustainable Urban Development.