Changing cities
Changing cities

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Changing cities

6.3 The limits of localism II: the limits of efficacy

Described image
Figure 17 An effective site of power? City Hall in Southwark on the south bank of the River Thames, home of the Greater London Authority

If there are limits to the extent to which local-level institutions embedded in places or cities can claim to be democratically inclusive, then this is closely related to the fact that locally embedded institutional structures are not necessarily effectively empowered to address the fundamental causes of issues that are locally experienced. The frustrations that galvanise the insurgent urbanisms described by Sutherland in Section 6.2 are not only, or necessarily primarily, shaped by the internal logics of exclusion; they are just as much shaped by the acknowledgement by locally embedded actors that locally scaled governance structures do not necessarily command the efficacy required to be able to respond to their concerns and demands.

Geographers and planning theorists such as Mark Purcell (Purcell, 2006) and Murray Low (Low, 2004) have warned against falling into ‘the local trap’ – of assuming that local-scale initiatives are always a preferable option. Local problems might not necessarily have local causes, for one thing. And localities might face real constraints in being able t act effectively in relation to extra-local processes.

This should not, however, lead us to despair. It might actually encourage us to think of cities as experimental spaces, enabling us to recognise the ways in which particular places are empowered to act in relation to complex causal processes without necessarily overestimating the political efficacy of the urban as a scale of governance.

For example, the political scientist Archon Fung uses case studies of grass-roots mobilisation and participation in deprived neighbourhoods in the South Side of Chicago to develop a model of ‘empowered participatory governance’ relevant to other places (Fung, 2004). In one case, local residents turned around a poorly performing local school, Africanising the curriculum and instilling a greater degree of pride and self-confidence in the students. In another case, of resident participation in neighbourhood policing, neighbourhood liaison and representation on the local police board led to hitherto hostile styles of policing being transformed into more cooperative and effective forms. In both cases, Fung’s argument is that using locally embedded infrastructures enabled institutional experimentation that can be disseminated to other settings.

This sense of ‘experimental’ urbanism should, however, be linked to a stronger argument which challenges the ready-made understanding that local places have little influence over the processes that shape them from the outside. ‘Global’ processes are not external to places, but are located in and run through them (Allen, 2010; Massey, 2007). This implies that we should look carefully at how different places are empowered to configure their relationships with extra-local actors in different ways to the benefit of those localities. Examples of this sort of experimental urbanism, which seeks to engage creatively with the linkages that make up particular places, include practices such as Fairtrade urbanism, Transition Town movements and ‘slow city’ networks (see Tyszczuk et al., 2012).

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