Rethinking Engagement in Cities: Ending the Professional vs. Citizen Divide

By Blair A. Ruble

Blair Ruble is Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience which includes its Comparative Urban Studies Program. His most recent book, Washington’s U Street: A Biography, examines the challenges of gentrification in Washington, D.C.

Sep 30, 2013 | Urban Sustainability | 2 comments

Cities are among humankind’s grandest and most complex creations. Even small urban communities represent the cumulative result of literally hundreds of thousands of public and private, individual and collective decisions over time. They are the playgrounds of spontaneity.

Such an understanding of how cities come into being and evolve is hardly new. Nor are its implications for how we plan and govern cities. While the language has changed, these ideas — and how those with custodianship for urban life approach their responsibilities — have been around for nearly as long as there have been cities. We can look to Ancient Greek political thought for notions about participation and empowerment that have been dressed up for our own times.

We need not look back so far. Anyone who has thought seriously about the contemporary urban condition, for example, has encountered the writings of Jane Jacobs. The specific insights of the ancients and the contemporary deserve serious engagement, criticism and debate. The importance of community engagement and mobilization, one might have thought, has become indisputable over several centuries of reformulation.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, a plentiful number of urban professionals around the world – including economists, planners, architects, and administrators of all types – have dismissed citizen participation as an extravagant expense that only gets in the way of efficient urban management. They reveal a steady re-entrenchment of top-down approaches to shaping the city in which professionals know best. Involving citizens, it seems, just costs too much.

Ironically, the lessons in recent years that have emerged from post-disaster experiences point in precisely the opposite direction. From Hurricane Katrina to Super Storm Sandy and all variety of man-made and natural disasters across the globe, we have seen integrated communities with high social capital and identity recover more quickly and more efficiently than those which are bedeviled by high levels of social anomie and isolation.

How can we explain this division between empirical lessons learned on the ground and the view from the commanding heights of professionalism?

There are multiple answers to such a complex question. Citizen engagement has often been oversold by its advocates who have failed to overcome challenges such as time, expense and passivity. Moreover, professional knowledge is essential to resolving many technical challenges.

Arguments against citizen engagement as being overly expensive and obtrusive ring ever more hollow at a time when smart technologies make information sharing and citizen participation ever more feasible and inexpensive. We know from the work of Tim Campbell’s Beyond Smart Cities, for example, that cities learn from each other through transnational networks rather than from top-down professional pontificators. Urban professionals who view themselves as the high priests and priestesses of city life must confront the realities of a digital age that is converting hierarchies into networks in every aspect of our lives.

Within this context, traditional urban “think tanks” need a new approach to their work. Specialized knowledge and expertise play an important role to be sure; but there is simultaneously a need to make that knowledge and expertise widely available. Communities must organize themselves if they are to be resilient in the face of unprecedented challenges for cities which certainly lie ahead as our planet changes.

Fortunately, models exist for converting traditionally hierarchical academic, professional, and municipal institutions into urban laboratories embedded in broad networks of public officials, business executives, entrepreneurs, civic leaders and citizens. The University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicator project, for example, mobilizes the considerable expertise necessary to collect and analyze big data about cities around the world while making such data available and transparent to broader communities. Similarly, Brooklyn’s new Center for Urban Science + Progress seeks to promote “a new kind of academic center that functions in collaboration with the city itself.”

Conferences such as Meetings of the Minds amplify the benefits of engaging urbanites and urban custodians from across many sectors. There are countless more examples of governance mechanisms and political arrangements which privilege participation over professional privilege.

As the world rushes towards an unprecedented urban age — as humans become a city rather than a rural species – we need new sorts of institutions – virtual and horizontal networks of minds rather than confined “tanks” for the best and the brightest – if we are going to sustain resilient urban communities. We need engagement and we need modesty if we, as denizens of cities great and small, are going to survive. We need to end the artificial divide between “professionals” and “citizens” once and for all. Fortunately, technologies that are now available allow the dreams of ancient philosophers who advocated direct involvement in decision-making for the cities to be realized.

Discussion

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2 Comments

  1. Eileen Conn

    I agree very much that we need to end the artificial divide between professionals and citizens. I am pioneering ways of doing this in one part of SE London, UK, and showing that there is a blind spot in the minds of professionals and their work worlds which deepens the divide. But it needs just a shift of perception to see that there are two quite different human social systems – vertical and horizontal – in a perpetual dance together, and suddenly ways to transform this can open up with small ‘adjacent possible’ steps.

    See a short video clip here: http://www.socialreporters.net/?p=455,
    – a summary of the approach: http://civilsocietyforum.net/site/insights/insight-from-eileen-conn,
    – my social eco-systems dance model: http://tinyurl.com/social-eco-system-dance-paper.

    See also http://www.peckhamvision.org for a window into the pioneering demonstration of a way of nurturing horizontal systems and enabling citizens to engage more effectively.

    Reply
  2. Rich Homberg

    This is where public television can play a vital role. Station are stepping up across the country to bring together leaders and the community on important issues.

    Reply

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