New Community Spaces

Editor’s Note: Last year, Urban Affairs Review ran a Mini-Symposium on Urban Governance that featured by articles by Allison Bramwell and Jon Pierre (New Community Spaces), Susan Clarke (Local Place Based Urban Governance), and Jill Simone Gross (Hybridization and Urban Governance).  We are now fortunate to have a set of follow-up pieces on Urban Governance written by the same authors to share with you on the Forum.  Additionally, the authors have done a fantastic podcast in which they discuss and debate their research (Click to listen: Part 1 and Part 2).

Today’s follow-up piece is by Allison Barmwell and John Pierre.  Allison Bramwell is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at UNC Greensboro and is a co-editor (with Neil Bradford) of the book Governing Urban Economies: Innovation and Inclusion in Canadian City Regions.  Jon Pierre is a Professor of Political Science at the University Gothenburg (Sweden).  He is the author of many articles and books on urban governance, policy, and politics.

By Allison Bramwell and Jon Pierre

Intensifying policy challenges continue to radically reshape the urban political landscape.  In one way or another, all urban regions struggle with the social implications of profound and accelerating economic change.  While some scramble to restructure after the loss of manufacturing industries and the middle wage jobs they provided, others grapple with the gentrification and displacement that accompanies the division of labor into high and low wage jobs, a situation exacerbated by immigration and an aging workforce.  Fiscal austerity and policy inattention from national and subnational governments to other urban issues such as affordable housing, environmental sustainability, and infrastructure investment further complicate this picture.

Unfolding across policy sectors, municipal boundaries, and levels of government, solving these complex and pressing challenges is clearly beyond the reach of local governments acting alone.  Scholars, policymakers, and think tank pundits alike regularly assert that 21st century urban problem-solving requires public, private, and non-profit sectors to work together to “carry out a public purpose that could not otherwise be accomplished” as Emerson and Nabatchi put it in their recent book.[i]   We know that experimentation is underway in many urban regions that departs from traditional urban political economy models assuming private sector privilege, but precisely how and why this collaborative experimentation unfolds remains an open question for much urban research.

Our particular interest lies in the regional ‘empowerment puzzle’ and the prospects for cross-boundary collaboration to balance rather than trade off between economic and social objectives at the metropolitan level.  Exploring this complex governance picture presented by a large and diverse set of actors, resources, and agendas, and a broad scope of activities in the Greater Toronto Area, we find ‘new community spaces’ for the expression of organized societal interests emerging at the regional scale.

To capture these developments, we propose a model of ‘institutionalized collaboration’ which represents a durable place-based alliance of social, economic, and political actors dedicated to balanced regional development strategies that include both growth and equity goals. In these arrangements, which are anchored in organizational space, elected officials, private sector, and community leaders meet regularly to determine and implement goals in the wider public interest based on an adaptable agenda that reflects shifting regional challenges and priorities, while leaving opportunity for wider public participation.[ii]

Some students of urban regions would immediately identify the analytical challenge we encountered as a case of Institutional Collective Action (ICA) as elaborated by Richard Feiock who draws on rational choice theory to postulate that city governments embedded in a metropolitan region will cooperate in service delivery to generate economies of scale as long as free riding problems can be avoided. In contrast, our analysis considers how social norms drive collaboration within urban regions to encourage the voluntary involvement of societal actors from multiple sectors whose incentives and expected benefits may be unclear or whose behavior may even simply be public spirited. However, assessing the realistic prospects for these institutionalized, community-driven cross-boundary arrangements requires careful attention to the ways in which diverse interests and resources participate in regional governance, as well as to the viability and democratic inclusiveness of these arrangements.

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is one of the continent’s largest and fastest growing metropolitan economies, having rapidly catapulted to global status in the past decade.  However, lack of political and fiscal autonomy from the provincial government, coupled with forced amalgamation in the late 1990s which exacerbated regional fragmentation and already competitive inter-municipal relations, left this urban powerhouse struggling to address policy challenges in the areas of economic development, transportation infrastructure, immigrant integration, rampant gentrification, and rising poverty.

Against this backdrop of ineffectual inter-municipal cooperation and diffuse networks, we find durable collaborative governance.  The Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance, or CivicAction for short, represents viable and high performing multi-actor governance that has survived changes in leadership, regularly adapted its agenda, and consistently represented regional issues even in the absence of broad regional representation. Influential political and bureaucratic leaders actively participate but Civic Action remains community-based, initiated, driven and sustained by private and not-for-profit sector civic leaders. Explicitly cross-boundary, its programmatic focus on inclusive, next generation leadership development, workforce development for skilled immigrants, neighborhood capacity building, tax policy reform for low income families, cultural tourism, regional public transit, and knowledge-intensive innovation, and inclusive leadership development,[delete this] represents a hybrid mix of ‘innovation’ and ‘inclusion’ agendas at the regional scale that is not captured by prevailing comparative models.

Yet important governance challenges remain.  First off, elite-domination begs questions about democratic legitimacy.  CivicAction has always been essentially an exclusive leadership coalition structured to streamline deliberation and facilitate implementation of its agenda.  Membership is by invitation only and participants are chosen as much for their personal networks as for their ability to represent multiple community interests and perspectives.  As the founding CEO put it, “influencing the influencers was what we were really good at.  We were never a grassroots organization.”  However, the Emerging Leaders Network (ELN) and the DiverseCity Fellows initiatives encourage leadership development broadly representative of the community.

At the same time, idiosyncratic relations between CivicAction and elected officials in the region indicate that CivicAction is not a governing coalition. Its linkages with the past two mayors of the City of Toronto, David Miller and Rob Ford, as well as with other mayors in the region have been largely weak and tangential, leaving untapped the potential for building a more durable partnership between elected and civic leaders, at least until very recently.  A founding member of CivicAction who took over as Chair in 2010 instead of running for mayor in that year’s election, John Tory successfully ran for Mayor of Toronto in 2014, presaging the potential for closer links.

Thus, we argue that CivicAction is not public sector governance but that it does represent regional governance in the public interest.  Institutionalized forms of cross-boundary collaboration for integrating community and economic development at the regional scale presents a viable analytical counterpoint to fragmentation, political trade-offs, and resource inequities.  However, we do not claim that CivicAction has completely answered the puzzle of regional governance in the Greater Toronto area. It is by no means a substitute for more comprehensive regional policymaking; numerous other initiatives operate within the region and much fragmentation remains. Although we also acknowledge that the thorny issue of power persists, leaving open the question of whether and how to apply standards of accountability, transparency, and democratic legitimacy to community-driven initiatives with public purposes, we find that initiatives to develop leadership networks inclusive of multiple identities and interests go a long way towards addressing these concerns.

[i] Emerson, K. and T. Nabatchi, 2015. Collaborative Governance Regimes. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

[ii] This model is developed in more detail in Bradford, N. and A. Bramwell, 2014. Governing Urban Economies: Innovation and Inclusion in Canadian City-Regions. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.



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