Literature Review: Reading the City

The New Urban Progress working group on Networked Governance and Democracy wrote a literature review to find common ground and a basis for their group work. The review analyzes examples of city government and democratic initiatives that are addressing pressing issues ranging from climate change to housing crises. Read below which books and documentaries the group are using to kick-start their own work on how to democratize cities and urban spaces.

Reading the City

by Francesca Weber-Newth, Friedrich Paulsen, Grace Levin, Julian St. Patrick Clayton, Melanie Kryst, and Sinaida Hackmack

To kick-off our transatlantic exchange on how to make cities more democratic and fair, our group has been discussing city governance in Germany and the USA. We’ve focused on how local decision-making is structured, how power is distributed in cities, what actors are involved, and compared innovative practices of citizen participation. Our zoom sessions have taken us from policing in DC to the “rent cap” in Berlin and back to redlining in New York. Along the way, many books, podcasts and films have inspired and shaped our discussions. We decided to pool our recommendations and share them here.

Climate Council — Answer to the most urgent issues of our time?

A recent film that struck a nerve was an ARTE documentary, which showed representative democracy getting a shake-up. In 2019, French President Emanuel Macron responded to the yellow vests protest movement, which demanded new forms of decision-making, by invoking a “climate council.” 150 randomly selected participants were chosen to answer one question: how can France reduce CO2 emissions by 40% until 2030? This was a unique democratic experiment because it put citizens’ voices at the center. The documentary gives fascinating insights into the mechanics of lively democracy in practice, even under corona restrictions. Although the documentary is set in France, the topic is central to the debates in our group around innovative instruments of citizen participation. The documentary illustrates the importance of comprehensive information as the basis for decision-making, unpacks questions around legitimation (the council merely makes recommendations) and the cost of this democratic experiment (€5 million). Perhaps most importantly and surprisingly, we watch the citizens ultimately decide against using the tools of direct democracy. Grappling with their responsibility, they vote against holding a national referendum for the most controversial topics. 

(Convention Citoyenne –  Démocratie en Construction, 2020, 59 minutes) 

In the United States, the first citizen climate assembly took place in Washington State (read the final report here!).

Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs & pragmatic urban change 

If someone gave you the task to redesign the street you live on to make it more pleasant, that wouldn’t sound too difficult, right? After reading what New York City’s former Transport Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has to say on the matter, you realize that it is not only difficult, it’s a fight – a streetfight. By telling the many stories of how the streets and plazas of New York were transformed under her tenure, this book vividly illustrates how hard it can be to change the urban environment for the better – but ultimately, how it can be done. We found this book to be an interesting read for our discussions on urban governance because it provides us with a “Handbook” for how stalemate and inaction in urban development (or “paralysis-by-analysis” as Sadik-Khan calls it) can be tackled. Sadik-Khan argues for small-scale, low-cost, and quick interventions that can translate into profound urban change, instead of the endless search for an idealized consensus. Streetfight teaches the reader valuable lessons, without feeling like a textbook. Even if you are not a transport planning expert, the many intriguing before and after photos and easy-to-understand street models will give you a solid understanding of the key issues involved. Michael Bloomberg, then New York City Mayor, said that “Janette Sadik-Khan is like the child that Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs never had.” This is of course no small statement to make. Why not go ahead and give this book a try and find out for yourself? 

(Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution by Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow, Penguin Books, 2016)

Municipalism: Reinventing politics at the Local Level

In 2015 in Spain, a municipalist movement gained support on the local level, and Ada Colau was elected as Mayor of Barcelona — as well as reelected in 2019. This prominent victory for activists is one of many examples where a new municipalist movement has worked on the local level to establish alternative economic, cultural or political structures from below. We found it uplifting to read and discuss the ideas and the network of municipalism around the globe in the book Fearless Cities — written in a manner that gives energy and guidance to those looking for concrete action to change things on the ground. Municipalism stresses the fact that the how of politics is just as important as the what and that a decentralized democracy can bring people together to take over responsibility. The book showcases different initiatives that get involved in the so-called “politics of doing” and gives guidelines to people who would like to set up good democratic discussions, campaigns and networks on their own. 

(Fearless Cities: A Guide to the Global Municipalist Movement by Barcelona En Comú with Debbie Bookchin and Ada Colau, New Internationalist, 2018)

Community-Driven Design

Resilience For All examines community-driven projects in East Biloxi, Mississippi, New York City, Portland, Oregon, and Detroit, Michigan, which offer new models for community engagement processes based in grassroots leadership, equity, and community resiliency. The case studies provide examples of how public agencies can work with neighborhood coalitions, advocacy groups, and resident leaders to make sure community members are part of the decision-making processes to address urban problems like divestment, gentrification, and climate change. We began our conversation on networked governance and democracy by identifying municipal government structures, critical actors, and the location of power in American and German contexts. The book shows the possible network of local actors involved in projects across the United States. Though the projects vary in their ability to successfully address historical injustices and prevent future displacement, we liked that the author centers the conversation on the structural racism and historical power imbalances present in the local governance and development of American cities. 

(Resilience for All: Striving for Equity Through Community-Driven Design, by Barbara Brown Wilson, Island Press, 2018)

Public Housing in New York & Chicago

In a study that investigates the gentrification of Black, poor neighborhoods in New York and Chicago, Derek Hyra reaches the conclusion that it is the decentralized and politically fragmented nature of New York that enables mobilization against the break-up of public housing. In contrast, Chicago’s Democratic administration and its consolidated power structure facilitated the break-up of public housing while at the same time not addressing the poor management of the remaining public housing sector. Using an ethnographic approach, Hyra illustrates how despite the shared role of neoliberal politics and the global dimension of New York and Chicago, specific urban development paths can produce different results when it comes to public housing.  

(The new urban renewal: the economic transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville, University of Chicago Press, Derek S. Hyra, 2008)

About the Working Group Networked Governance and Democracy

The New Urban Progress Fellows are organized in three working groups, each looking at current challenges and opportunities for cities and urban spaces on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to Networked Governance and Democracy, the two other groups are Sustainability and Social Mobility as well as Inclusive Growth and Innovation. Each group is made up of young urban leaders living across Germany and the United States. They meet digitally on a regular basis to exchange ideas and discuss progressive policy for the cities of tomorrow. During the fellowship, the groups will produce analyses, op-eds, debate papers, travel blogs, and more – watch this space or subscribe to our newsletter to keep up-to-date with all of the fellows’ latest posts.

About the Authors
  • Francesca Weber-Newth is Project Manager at the Tempelhof Projekt GmbH.
  • Friedrich Paulsen is Department Director of Governmental Affairs and Political Coordination at the German Association of Savings Banks.
  • Grace Levin is Community Organizer in the city of Austin, Texas.
  • Julian St. Patrick Clayton is Deputy Director for Policy and Research at the Center for NYC Neighborhoods. 
  • Melanie Kryst is Project Lead for Transdisciplinary Urban Development at the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform. 
  • Sinaida Hackmack is Doctoral Candidate at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin.