From Participation to Power? Possibilities and Pitfalls in Co-producing Urban Governance

From citizen involvement in urban planning processes through to municipal energy strategies, neighbourhood budgets, or citizen juries, diverse forms of citizen participation are increasingly embedded in a wide range of governance practices. For some, greater citizen engagement has adopted an almost panacea-like character, capable ‘not only… of addressing issues of poverty and social justice; it is also a means of tackling the growing democratic deficit that is now widely discussed in both “mature” and  “emerging” democracies’ (Gaventa 2004: 26). In an epoch where inequality is becoming increasingly severe on a global scale (Piketty 2013), and in which far-right nationalisms and a fear of the Other is becoming dominant, the search for solutions that are just – both in process and in outcomes – is as urgent as it’s ever been.

  • Yet is participation itself a normative goal?
  • Does including citizens in decision-making necessarily lead to more just, sustainable, equitable or legitimate outcomes?
  • To what extent do ‘co-productive’ practices between metropolitan governments and citizens either hinder or help us in developing our ‘freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves’ (Harvey 2008)?
  • Where, why and how do forms of co-production between state and citizens lead to empowerment and an opening towards different urban futures?
  • Or where, why and how do they act as a form of ‘capture’ that contributes to the foreclosure of alternatives?

This session is coordinated by the Action Research Cooperative (ARC), a grouping of academics and nonacademics working to co-produce experiments in participatory urban governance in Greater Manchester as part of the ESRC Urban Transformations ‘Jam & Justice’ project. At a ‘mid-point’ in our research, the ARC is seeking to share our insights and reflections on our 10 ongoing cases of co-production and participatory forms of urban governance. We are inviting others to join us in a dialogue about the potential of these practices to contribute to radical social change, along with their limits and dangers. Bringing together academics and non-academics, we are particularly interested in contributions that draw on embedded action research into the potentials and pitfalls of forms of ‘co-production’ and/or ‘citizen engagement’ in urban governance.

 We are calling for discursive contributions and practical exemplars of participatory urban governance initiatives, rather than traditional academic papers. Please submit an outline of the examples(s) you would like to contribute, and an indication of how these contribute to the above themes.


The Action Research Cooperative, University of Sheffield