How can we nurture urban transformation?

Dr. Catherine Durose

The complex, rapidly changing, increasingly precarious nature of cities has highlighted the limits of a traditional ‘top down’ master governance plan. How then can we shape and transform cities in order to address the challenges we face as a society, from sustainability to social cohesion?

Rather than attempting to discipline the urban governance environment, academics are increasingly trying to use different ways of thinking about the urban environment in order to work with its messiness, focusing on contingency, emergence and interaction. In our recent research, we have embraced this approach, but sought to develop it by also acknowledging the role of human agency in shaping and nurturing urban transformation.  Our work has given a sustained focus on how different people – those working on the front-line of public services, or in voluntary, community or social enterprise organisations, activists, and residents – can create change in urban neighbourhoods. Our new research places those working for change at the centre of debates on how cities transform.

We conducted a 30 month study in neighbourhoods in Amsterdam, Birmingham, Copenhagen and Glasgow. With local partners, we identified individuals who had a reputation for making a difference. We interviewed and observed them, and created spaces for them to come together to reflect on what they do, how they do it and why it matters. Our research discovered examples of how people made use of and nurtured four common resources:

  • Vision: a set of ideas to bring people together and offers a collective narrative for the future.
  • Relationships: ongoing engagement with a range of different people, often across cultural, economic or organisational boundaries.
  • Different ways of knowing: from professional knowledge to local.
  • Materials: from buildings to human bodies.

Living Lab in Birmingham

Examples included: how a mobile bakery in Amsterdam brought people together to take action, how historic buildings were re-purposed in Glasgow to offer a different future for the neighbourhood, how healthy lifestyle opportunities in Birmingham helped women from under-served communities realise their potential, and how resources were re-used and shared in Copenhagen to build a sustainable neighbourhood food economy. 

Seen together these examples begin to demonstrate a different way of thinking and showing how cities may be transformed:

First, how transformation may come from giving meaning to action and a pathway to a more liveable neighbourhood. 

Second, nurturing rather than extracting resources.

Third, engaging with people as community members to foster a sense of belonging and solidarity.

Finally, recognising and valuing different kinds of knowledge and harnessing them to respond creatively to social problems.

These practices did not begin with, focus upon, or end with those formal institutions that govern a city. Indeed, they often reflected institutional limits. Instead, they were guided by a belief in fostering power in communities towards a shared vision of a different future. 

The understanding of change expressed here, brings together a recognition of the role of people in catalysing urban transformation by bringing together different resources in a way that is purposeful, but also allows for a process of becoming that emerges over time. The work and resources we draw attention to here were often precarious, hidden, unvalued and yet hard to replace. Opportunities to experiment, to nurture, to fail, to reflect were all crucial, but we should acknowledge are also under severe pressure.

Our research brings together the history of different urban neighbourhoods, and their potential, and recognised the actual whilst considering the possible. We hope these insights contribute to ongoing learning and critical imagination in how we can approach the future of cities differently. Our article, ‘Working the urban assemblage: a transnational study of transforming practices’ by Catherine Durose, Mark van Ostaijen, Merlijn van Hulst, Oliver Escobar and Annika Agger has now been published in Urban Studies, and is available open access.

Catherine is Reader in Policy Sciences at INLOGOV, with a specific interest in urban governance and public policy.

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