Authors’ Blog: Explaining ‘power to’: incubation and agenda building in an urban regime.

This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. This article is available in OnlineFirst.


Explaining ‘power to’: incubation and agenda building in an urban regime.

Stefania Ravazzi is assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Turin, Italy, and Vice-President of the LaPo-Laboratory of Public Policy. Her current research focuses on urban governance and deliberative democracy. Her recent contributions on these topics were published in Métropolesand Journal of Public Deliberation. She may be reached at:

Silvano Belligni is professor of Political Science at the University of Turin, Italy. His current research focuses on urban governance and corruption. His scholarly publications have analyzed urban power structure, local élites, water policy, the theory of governance, and corruption mechanisms.

From the urban governance perspective, although not free from structural constraints, local actors can exercise a significant influence on urban policies and affect the life conditions of residents. Within this paradigm, the urban regime theory, developed from the works of Elkin and Stone, has placed the decisional power of urban policy-makers in the foreground. From the urban regime perspective, not only can local actors systematically affect the context through their public decisions but, in particular situations, stable and enduring governing coalitions can even change the whole consolidated policy mix of a city through the implementation of a new policy agenda. Stone has labeled ‘power to’ as being the capacity to promote and sustain new urban agendas and to foster great changes in the social and economic context.

Since the first work by Stone on Atlanta, several studies have been conducted on urban regimes, in particular in the USA, but also in some European and Asian countries. However, the literature has mainly placed emphasis on “seemingly static public-private relationships”, and has largely neglected to focus on the power to and its dynamics. The present article has the aim of addressing the matter of ‘power to’. In particular, the analysis has been driven by two main research questions: how is a common frame shaped by the local élite? and is the new agenda a by-product of sectorial policy negotiations that take place within a general frame, or is it the outcome of a collective effort?

In order to address these two questions, an in-depth analysis of a case study is presented. The case refers to the establishment of an urban regime and the emergence of a new urban agenda in the city of Turin, one of the three old poles of the Italian industrial triangle (together with Milan and Genoa) and the capital of the Italian automotive industry.

During the 1980s, the city underwent a long socio-economic crisis, which was mainly caused by deindustrialization processes that produced several social problems – companies and jobs were lost and the population diminished. After a period of relative inaction, the city attempted to react through the collaborative action of a wide governing coalition and the implementation of a new urban agenda in order to foster the start of a new urban development model.

The new agenda that was implemented over these twenty years was composed of three main policy areas. The first set of policies focused on housing expansion, renovation of the urban center, and major infrastructures: a new underground railway and the first subway line, more than 110 million cubic meters of new buildings in abandoned industrial areas, urban regeneration projects in some poor neighbourhoods, the expansion of the two academic institutions, the restoration of many buildings, squares and monuments in the historical center, a new railway station and the renovation of the old one. The second set of policies evokes the idea of ​​an urban district for the ‘knowledge sector’: research centers, business incubators and poles to host innovative companies have been created since the mid-1990s. Last but not least, the city invested a huge amount of resources in activities and projects for entertainment and leisure: several large events, a completely renewed museum system, new theatres and a Film Commission to attract movie companies to the region.

The analysis has highlighted how a process of reflection and debate in several local social and political environments has led to the shaping of a common frame by several components of the local élite. The main goal (to change toward a pro-growth mix of policies) and three shared aims (to diversify and requalify the local economy, to start with policies that could foster local economic growth in the short-term, and to build a wide alliance between public and private actors) emerged from this incubation period. This process developed in three stages, which broadly recall the classic model of dispute emergence: a naming process, which led to a clear perception of the critical situation of the city, a blaming process against the past urban politics, through which a narrative of the causes and responsibilities was framed, and a claiming process, which produced some core beliefs and some key purposes for a shared goal. These findings also offer empirical evidence on the theoretically and empirically underdeveloped issue of localism in urban regimes. In fact, the incubation process in Turin had clear localist traits, since the protagonists were local and the framing process was also focused on local dynamics.

Although chance played a role in the sequencing and combination of the events, what can be called a city dialogue – a somewhat public, informal and structured process of discussion – was decisive in allowing the collective construction of the new urban agenda. The structured and city-wide process of discussion was important, because it influenced the strategies of the governing coalition members. It fostered a purposive approach, favored wider support from collateral actors and worked as a collector of several policy windows, by gathering different policy entrepreneurs at the same venue, making them confront each other and reflect on their issues from different viewpoints over a relatively short period. Furthermore, it allowed conflicts among coalition partners to be managed during the decision-making process instead of afterwards, thus reducing obstructions and impasses during the implementation processes. These findings suggest that the ‘power to’ of urban regimes could develop not only through standard negotiations and sectorial policy-making processes, which are typical of urban governance, but also through a city-wide collective effort, in some way more deliberative, although not necessarily more inclusive or attentive to social justice.

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