New ideas for 'urban citizenship'

Urban centres across the world are facing immense challenges as they attempt to provide quality public services. What are they missing? Urban Citizenship.

Patrick Heller Piers Purdy
7 June 2017

Kolkata Flower Market. Source: Wikimedia Commons / Photo by Arne Hückelheim.

This interview is part of the series 'Development in the Face of Global Inequalities'. You can find out more about the series, read its articles and explore the interactive roundtables by clicking here.

In 1860, high mortality rates among the working classes, as well as poor health and education conditions, established the need for Barcelona, Spain, to rethink its distribution of public services in the city. Ildefons Cerdà’s unique type of urban planning was the answer, delivering inclusive housing planning and service provision, and his plan still guides Barcelona’s urban planning today. It therefore seemed appropriate that a café in Barcelona, an expanding, international city, was the setting for my conversation with Patrick Heller on the changing landscape of urban development.

Patrick’s research addresses the risk of sprawling urban centres further dismantling the mechanisms of engagement between citizens and the state, and the subsequent creation of new forms of social exclusion. It is no longer only who you are that influences your ability to exercise your citizenship rights and access public services, but also where you live in the city, creating the threat of what he described as ‘citizens without a city’.

In the global north, the idea of urban citizenship - this ability of a citizen to engage with the city authorities when there is, for example, a problem with public services, regardless of your residential district - is often taken for granted:

 “But in much of the developing world, your ability to make claims on the state regarding issues such as access to water and garbage disposal often becomes a function of begging, or being entangled in a clientelistic relationship, or bribery. This completely fragments demand making, so instead of broad-based and rights-based demands, you get a lot of particularistic demands, which makes it very difficult to deliver public services in an efficient, inclusive way.”

I’m interested in this particular idea of urban citizenship, and how we might identify it. Asking him about it when we meet, he explains that its key ingredient was a partnering between the state and civil society, as a means of delivering not just inclusive access to services, but also the quality requisite for substantial development. Those outside of international development might be surprised to hear that “states can rarely deliver anything entirely on their own”, but Patrick identifies various ways in which states need to partner with citizens or civil society groups.

“Healthcare for example, nurses and doctors as state employees, ideally work with informed and proactive patients, to deliver preventative healthcare, exercise regimes etc. Likewise, schools are much better at delivering education when parents and students are involved, when you have PTAs and the community is also there. And then there are examples like the HIV AIDS prevention programmes in Brazil: the reason they were successful was because the health bureaucracy recognised that it was going to be very difficult to reach the at-risk population, often marginalised and stigmatised. They worked with grassroots NGOs, who had access to these populations through networks built on trust, and it turned out these groups were really good at reaching these populations.”

We go on to discuss what political and social conditions were needed to encourage this state-civil society partnership. Democratic regimes, as opposed to authoritarian, are more favourable of course, but democratic institutions alone are insufficient. Only certain democracies can deliver the complementing public legality, which Patrick describes as: “a space in which people can freely and easily, at minimal cost, engage and use their rights, get involved and  be politically active”, which itself is a product of state policy. Getting policy right here is “an incredibly delicate balance”, where on one side, active engagement can ensure a level playing field and offer marginalised groups opportunities, and on the other side, state action can undermine civil society, by demobilising or co-opting it.

The nation-state is predicated on the notion that the government controls the economy – under globalisation, that simply isn’t true anymore.

If states achieve this balance, they will be able to do more, with less; and in a global context that is seeing the further concentration of wealth, growing resentment towards ‘the 1%’ and a staggering entrenchment of global and domestic inequalities, I see clearly how this idea of urban citizenship would be essential part of achieving inclusive, and indeed sustainable development in the expanding cities of the global south. But as we survey the road ahead, I’m interested to hear how we should value international interactions in relation to this narrative?

At first, Patrick accepts that there is some discordance between globalisation and certain democratic norms.  “The nation-state is predicated on the notion that the government controls the economy – under globalisation, that simply isn’t true anymore”. As capital has become increasingly global, and mobile, the constant threat of capital flight and the lost investment has made taxation difficult. By shifting the tax burden from capital to income as an attempt to counter this threat – a burden largely falling on the shoulders of the lower-class - democratic governments have found themselves with little resources to build a welfare state, secure the social compact and enforce laws. The welfare state is what makes democracy substantive, and “if you can’t translate that into material gains – better education, better healthcare, better housing – then people will start asking what’s the point, right?” He then recalls the well-known line from Adam Przeworski, “with globalization, people have learnt that they have a vote, but they can’t choose”.

This hollowing out of democracy can be seen in many other ways, and I suggest that there is a strong perception that democracy is now failing, its principles eroded and its ability to deliver welfare provision weakened. But Patrick is keen to point out that this narrative is somewhat exaggerated:

“Globalisation is undermining the practices of traditional democracies, but it’s also diffusing democratic discourses and ideals. In Europe, the welfare state may not be growing, but it hasn’t collapsed, it’s still making a significant impact on individuals’ lives and all the political parties still support it. The US also is not as grim as people make out, where despite cut backs, Obamacare has been the single biggest expansion of the welfare state in decades, and it might be rolled back, but I suspect not”

In the global south, he sketches out an even kinder vision: the welfare state has in fact been growing. The ways in which norms have been diffused he finds really interesting, and in East Asia and Latin America he describes this process as being “profound”. The latter is a region in which through my work I’ve tended to associate more with a struggle, rather than victory, but Patrick leads me to revise this interpretation, listing the progress he sees in there:

“There’s now the idea of universal rights, for women, indigenous populations, gays, afro-descendants; and courts are more powerful; people are able to make claims against the state; there is rights based legislation; inclusive social programmes and reduced clientelism”.

In this sense, there is space for discourse. Transnational organisations have played a role in this diffusion of ideas and norms, particularly in smaller countries where there is room to operate. It is these transnational networks, between academics and activists, high above our expanding cities, where we have been creating a new civil society that can address the most pressing global challenges that those involved in international development spend their lives researching, analysing and proposing solutions for: “human dignity, protection against violence, basic capabilities, sustainability, gender rights, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism”.

In the same way as we should be careful of transplanting northern norms to the south, so too should we be careful going in the other direction.

And so, I naturally ask, is there scope for South to North diffusion? His response: In the same way as we should be careful of transplanting northern norms to the south, so too should we be careful going in the other direction. But that doesn’t prevent exporting success, as experiments with participatory budgeting from Brazil show, spreading to other parts of the global south, and more recently being experimented with in Europe.

We finish our drinks and pay the bill. Having covered a lot of ground – our expanding cities, the role of the nation-state and the international space above it – Patrick’s emphasis on urban citizenship as a means of achieving inclusive, sustainable urban development left me thinking more on the importance of the partnership between the city authorities and civil society. But that final part of our conversation, this building and diffusion of new ideas that can travel beyond the restraints of national boundaries, also resonated with me. As Rebecca Solnit remarked, “The question is about negotiating a viable relationship between the local and the global, and not signing up with one and shutting the other out”. Perhaps then it is at all of these levels that we can observe the changing landscape of urban development.

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You can read Patrick's answers on the Politics of Inequality roundtable here.

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