Progressive Urbanism in Small Towns: The Contingencies of Governing From the Left

By Ross Beveridge (University of Glasgow) and Matthias Naumann (University of Klagenfurt)

Progressive politics is increasingly thought of in terms of cities. They were nodes of resistance to Trumpism in the USA and are centers of a new municipalist movement. In response, there has been growing interest in developing progressive urban policy agendas drawing on examples across a range of cities. But what is it about the urban that drives progressive political projects? And might there be differences between larger and smaller urban areas? Much of the academic debate focuses on larger cities, meaning our understanding of how progressive urban politics plays out in smaller towns is limited. Beyond emblematic cases like Burlington (Vermont), still associated with Bernie Sanders, there is little linking small towns to progressive politics in the political or academic imagination. Indeed, the opposite is usually the case: small towns are associated with conservatism, ‘Small Town America’, for instance, and, increasingly, right-wing populism. Globalization is driving new and deepening regional inequalities, with stark divides between prosperous large urban centers, on the one hand, and small towns as well as rural areas, on the other. Long-term economic decline in many small towns is seen to drive support for politicians like Trump, right-wing political parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and political causes like Brexit in the UK.

Against this background, our research aimed to advanced understanding of how what we called “progressive urbanism” developed in small towns. Progressive urbanism was defined as projects advancing an agenda of social justice and democracy in relation to local government and urban life more generally. We were particularly interested in the contingencies of such projects in small towns, the points of compromise and contest as well as how local conditions shape political strategies, policies and practices. We examined small towns in the German state of Brandenburg governed by the Left Party (DIE LINKE). Our interviews with mayors threw up three areas of tension with academic debates on progressive urbanism: between the translocal urban movements lauded in the literature and the very local coalitions in the towns, between the grand narratives of wider urban movements and the small-scale projects of the mayors and between the principle of democratic self-government and the pragmatism of state government. These tensions provide a way of putting the contingencies of small-town government in conversation with those identified in the wider, and more big city focused, literature.

From Translocal Movements to Local Coalitions

In small towns, coalitions of actors may be very different to those found in larger cities. Our interviews revealed that sports clubs, church groups and even chess clubs were important. Of course, such actors may well be part of progressive coalitions in larger cities. However, it is unlikely that they are as prominent in metropolitan contexts where social movements, think tanks, the apparatuses of political parties generate a panoply of political players. In the small towns we looked at, such stalwarts of urban progressive politics were of marginal importance. The need to develop local coalitions and focus on very particular political constellations has obvious risks in small towns. While localism is seen as crucial to democratic politics, only local politics entails the risk of both political conservativism and naivety with regards to other scales and spaces of politics. As we showed, small towns – as well as big cities – also have to address “global” issues of migration and climate change. However, there is often less support and resources for them to do so, given their marginal position in the wider national governmental system and networks of progressive politics.

From Grand Narratives to Small-Scale Projects

Our interviews showed the importance of small gains in small towns. Again, this may be common to all contexts of progressive urbanism, but the more substantive point to be taken from our study is that in small towns broader political narratives or even national party programmes and debates appeared to be of little importance. Some of the mayors even rejected the idea that they were practicing progressive urbanism on the grounds that it was neither possible nor desirable to be overtly “left-wing” in small towns. Politics was simply different, they argued, more familiar, more bound-up in shared interests and more resistant to political grandstanding. Engaging in struggle, being part of wider progressive cause movement was not part of the self-image or strategy.

From Self-government to State Government

Attempts to go beyond the politics of local state institutions were few and far between. We noted one participatory budgeting policy, but wider attempts to expand democratic government were not apparent. Traditional government prevailed, though the informal and familiar nature of small-town politics was stressed. Even if all the mayors talked about engagement and the need for local organizations to be included in politics, the lack of a wider progressive constituency, the absence of a wider progressive movement in the small towns examined might explain the limited ambitions in terms of democratizing politics.

We may assume that projects of progressive urbanism ultimately begin with assessments of what is and what is not possible in particular urban conditions. Progressive policies were apparent in the small towns we looked at, for example, in terms of welcoming refugees and expanding social housing. The small-town politicians were advancing generally progressive agendas, they just did so according to what they say are the prevailing conditions of politics in these urban places and this created its own limits and opportunities. Ultimately, a Realpolitik was apparent in the small towns we researched, a pragmatic approach attuned to local specificities, quite distinct and distant from big city versions and broader movements of progressive urbanism. More research is needed to ascertain whether the contingencies we observed apply in small-town contexts elsewhere and to unearth examples of how these are being transformed in progressive political projects.

Read the open access UAR article here.

Photo by Samantha Watkins on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Ross Beveridge is an Urban Studies Foundation Senior Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow and a Research Fellow at the Department of Regional Planning at the Brandenburg University of Technology, Cottbus-Senftenberg. His research interests lie in the fields of urban and regional politics.

Matthias Naumann is a Professor of Geography and Regional Studies at the University of Klagenfurt (Austria). Naumann’s research interests include urban and rural development, the transformation of infrastructure, and political geography. He has held several research and teaching positions in the Berlin-Brandenburg region.