Snakes and ladders in participation

As cities grow in size and significance, they can become sites of complex social problems – but also hubs for exploring possible solutions. While every city faces distinct problems, they all share a need for innovative approaches to tackle today’s challenges.

This essay is one in a series on future trends for innovative cities, written by the leading thinkers of the Mayor of Seoul’s Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee. Sixth up: Peter Ramsden, social innovation consultant and expert at URBACT.  

It is half a century since Sherry Arnstein published her influential paper in which she posited a linear model of citizen participation in the form of a ladder. 

The ladder of participation starts at the bottom rung with manipulation and climbs through eight steps to citizen control. Arnstein grouped the rungs in three categories, going from non-participation through tokenism to citizen power. 

Arnstein was writing about the USA’s federal Model Cities initiative – part of President Johnson’s Great Society – in which 150 cities were supported to regenerate deprived, mostly black neighbourhoods. The programme called for ‘maximum feasible participation’ of the poor. Arnstein was an experienced HUD policy maker who had seen tokenism in action on numerous advisory committees and panels. Her central argument in the paper is that real participation is ultimately about levels of citizen control. In modern parlance this means co-design, coproduction and co-management (aka co- everything). 

Participation is also about more than partnership. Partnerships contain relevant departments and agencies in horizontal and vertical chains, but bring in relatively few civil society organisations and even fewer directly involve citizens themselves. Participation is about how you engage not just with the willing, but with people who are closest to the problems of the area.
Perhaps not surprisingly it continues to be in deprived neighbourhoods that participation is most often backed by local government. In these areas the city is either only just managing or in the worst case has lost control.

At the limit, crime, drugs and riots have been the trigger for making cities think about how to engage the citizens to deal with the problems. 

The Seoul Metropolitan Government is now looking at how it can extend long-standing examples in a few mostly deprived neighbourhoods to bring the city’s management closer to the citizen. 

In Europe, the most respected and long standing approaches to deprived neighbourhoods have been in cities like Berlin. There, the city has experimented for 20 years with a form of neighbourhood budgeting in 34 neighbourhoods defined by rich sets of indicators available at granular level. More than half of the districts are in inner city neighbourhoods, which play host to significant numbers of migrants from Turkey and other Mediterranean countries. The rest focus on large peripheral system-built housing estates which are less multi-ethnic but have specific problems of poverty, isolation and lack of cohesion. 

Each area has a neighbourhood council created by an informal system of local voting and by a minority of co-options of local actors, such as junior school headteachers and social workers. Each year calls for projects are organised and those living and working in the neighbourhood can respond. Small projects can be decided by the local committee, larger ones have more oversight from the local districts and Berlin senate. A wide range of projects are supported, from pocket parks and small environmental works, to support for projects on gender violence and for job creation. Despite running for more than 20 years and in that time spending more than 50m USD, the budget has never exceeded 1% of Berlin’s total spending. The additional governance arrangements and finance only apply in these neighbourhoods which make up about a third of the total city population. 

Since 2010, Lisbon has developed a programme called BIP/ZIP aimed at 67 of its most deprived areas. Each year organisations from these areas are invited to bid for resources to back a project with up to 50k EUR (60K USD) in an annual edition. Every bid must be from a minimum of two organisations, but this allows informal associations to partner with more established bodies. BIP/ZIP has now been through eight editions and the city has found that as well as the direct benefits of the approximately 130 projects that are funded across the city each year, the programme brings decision makers closer to the citizens. Each project must be completed in 12 months and have a legacy for a further 12 months. 

When more intensive urban regeneration programmes are being developed, the city helps local people to establish GABIPs which are local neighbourhood councils, which in turn influence the way that larger funds are spent. Areas such as Mouraria, a historic dense neighbourhood near to the centre have been transformed over the past decade through a combination of a range of initiatives at local level. 

There are many more examples and also a spread from the Northern countries of the EU (e.g. Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, France and UK) to examples in Southern Europe, and to a lesser extent in the newer members of the EU from Central and Eastern Europe. Programmes such as the EU’s Urban Innovative Actions are incentivising participative approaches by offering grants of up to 5m EUR to about 20 cities each year, which produce an innovative idea which is nearly always based on deep forms of participation. Athens is a good example with a refugee support project linked to its Bloomberg backed participation platform Synathina. 

The tools are also improving, so that methods of working with and in communities have come on rapidly since the 1960s. These methods are increasingly well documented and shared through numerous case studies and websites. 

However, in many countries both in Europe and elsewhere, deeper forms of participation are still the exception rather than the rule. When the city wants to do major redevelopments of deprived neighbourhoods, and especially when it backs market based gentrification as the solution to the problems local communities face; money talks and real participation goes out of the window. From Guangzhou to London there are examples not of ladders but of snakes. Examples of what Ivan Tosics has called ‘rough urban regeneration’ in which the dispersal of local communities is orchestrated by developers and local government to make way for gentrification and gleaming towers. In these situations, the community is once again a small voice. Equalising the power of financial investors and local communities requires that our attitude to land values and community interests are reframed. It requires that citizens of a neighbourhood or housing estate have legal rights to participate. 

Only when cities ensure that community interests are treated seriously and equally will we get near the top of Sherry Arnstein’s ladder.