Accomplishing Agonism in Urban Governance

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 post is by Jill Simone Gross who is the Director of the Graduate Program in Urban Policy and Leadership and an Associate Professor in the Department of the Hunter College Urban Policy & Planning. She is the co-author (with Robin Hambleton) of Governing Cities in a Global Era.

By Jill Simone Gross

Today, more than at any other time in recent history, cities are faced with a range of unique governance challenges. “Complexity” is the name of the game when it comes to the governance of cities in 2017. Be it from the challenges of responding to urban policy problems which do not fit within single sector “silos” (i.e. environment, migration, domestic violence, and poverty for example), or those which emerge from an increasingly divided political terrain which leaves some cities nested within hostile vertical systems of power (i.e. sanctuary cities like Baltimore, Chicago, LA and New York in the US; or, global cities like Hong Kong fighting to uphold the “one country two system principle” in China), or the global economic challenges that emerge in response to reactive movements away from open economic systems to austere closed or highly selective ones (i.e. London in the aftermath of Brexit). The context would suggest a need for cities to seek out new synergies, new allies, new understandings of the flows of capital, and new responses to the barriers being placed on civil society mobility. It is time for researchers and practitioners to turn their attention to hybridity in urban governance, and what lessons it offers to city leaders seeking to govern in these tumultuous times.

Hybridity is in many ways, a constituent element of most forms of urban governance in practice. Thus, though researchers have posited distinct modes of governance in theory, these typologies in a Weberian sense, serve as heuristic tools for analysis. The real world of governance however, is more fluid. Thus, urban governance is perhaps more directly understood as a process that moves over time and in response to specific needs. Thus one can identify hybridity within urban governance systems in relationship to combinations of modes, actors and strategies in a variety of ways reflective of context and culture.

While hybridity would appear to be a feature of urban governance arrangements in many localities globally, research and analysis focusing on this specific aspect of the governance process, is only at the nascent stages. Though we are seeing more and more awareness of their existence, and scholars are working towards descriptive understandings of what these cross-sector, cross-scaler forms of collaboration look like, what is lacking is a deep dive into analysis of hybridity itself.

What we potentially gain from analysis of hybridity, are better understandings of the conditions under which diverse stakeholders can overcome their differences and generate transformation in the way governance happens. This research offers the possibility of enhancing our understandings of how “wicked” problems are responded to.  And, perhaps more generally, such a focus might enable greater clarity concerning the conditions that enable stakeholders to “learn” how to use conflict constructively (i.e. agonism).

By focusing our attention specifically on the hybrid features found within urban governance we find ourselves with a laboratory in which we can expose the underlying features of shared problem solving, as well as the barriers to its achievement. We potentially uncover strategies that allow self-interested actors to come to terms with common pool resource needs.

Political, environmental and social change is happening at an incredibly rapid pace in the world today. Not surprisingly, we see a need for better understandings of the ways in which more resilient and adaptable forms of urban governance might be possible. The search for competitive advantages tended to be the driving force underlying urban governance since the 1980s, while perhaps today the question that emerges is how to build collaborative advantage?

We are at a point in which urban scholarship can play a powerful role in uncovering the tools that many cities will need, in what seems to be an increasingly hostile geopolitical environment. Understandings of hybridity in urban governance systems, processes and policy outputs would appear to be needed now, more than ever.



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  1. Why scholars should avoid throwing out a 28-year-old baby with the bathwater: Applying urban regime analysis to Switzerland – Urban Affairs Forum

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