In the history of democracy, cities have played many pivotal roles, as sites of public assembly, sanctuaries for the persecuted, shapers of political language and objects of wonder. City states of the ancient world gave birth to the ideal of self-governing citizens gathered as equals in assemblies. The towns of medieval and early modern Europe were embattled spaces that hatched old ideals and practices that are still alive: civility, civil societies, citizenship and self-government through elected representatives. Press freedom was born of urban struggles; so was republican resistance to absolute monarchy and popish government. And just over a century ago, many cities experimented with ‘gas-and-water socialism’. They established public baths, museums, libraries, music halls, parks and publicly-funded services, including horse-drawn trams, filtered water, and sewerage disposal.
Led by geographers Amanda Tattersall and Kurt Iveson, this project asks whether cities today might be functioning in similar ways, as drivers of bold new political ideals and practices uniquely suited to the 21st century? Do cities hold the key to our democratic future? The research examines the myriad ways in urban settings people are channeling frustrations with existing engagement processes into new forms of citizen action. They are creating urban alliances, involving unlikely coalitions of civil society organisations seeking to bind their diverse interests together in pursuit of the ‘common good’. For these citizens, the question ‘how can citizens become more engaged in urban development?’ is not only a matter of consultation, but also a matter of organisation. These citizens are creating their own infrastructures for proactive engagement with urban governance, rather than passively waiting for others to ask what they think.
A distinctive feature of the project is an international comparison of urban alliances and citizen engagement in a number of major global cities, including Barcelona, Berlin, Sydney and Jakarta.