Urban governance and assemblage urbanism

As the idea of what the city should be is becoming more diversified and negotiated, the actions of plan­ners are becoming increasingly important for the futures that can be performed. Planners have to navigate in a field of opposite interests and ambigu­ous agendas which require the development of new competences and ways of imagining urban develop­ment.


The new wave of urbanization

”Imagine grabbing Manhattan by the Empire State Building and pulling the entire island up by its roots. Imagine shaking it. Imagine millions of wires and hundreds of thousands of cables freeing themselves from the great hunks of rock and tons of musty and polluted dirt. Imagine a sewer system and a set of water lines three times as long as the Hudson River. Picture mysterious little vaults just beneath the crust of the sidewalk, a sweaty grid of steam pipes 103 miles long, a turn-of the-eight­eenth-century merchant ship bureau under Front Street, rusty old gas lines that could be wrapped twenty-three times around Manhattan, and huge bomb-proof concrete tubes that descend almost eighty storeys into the ground.”
– Introduction to “Underneath New York

The world is undergoing the largest urban growth in human history. By 2009, the number of people living in urban areas (3.42 billion) surpassed the number living in rural areas (3.41 billion) and more than two thirds of the European population lives in urban areas. In Europe cities are seen as central to both economic growth and social cohesion in the EU, as shown in the report “cities of tomorrow” by the European Commission.

The report describes how European cities has im­proved their competitive positions by different means, such as: establishing strategic visions, involv­ing key economic players, improving the quality of life for professionals, developing centers for creativ­ity; and presents cities as growth engines. The qual­ity and aesthetics of the built environment and of public spaces are also mentioned as important fac­tors for a city’s potential. Public spaces are empha­sized as meeting places “in the broadest sense” from observing others, interaction and communication, to forums where the future of the city can be discussed. Furthermore the re­port describes a future Europe where the cities play a central part economically, socially and politically.

“The European Cities of tomorrow are places of advanced social progress; they are platforms for democracy, cultural dialogue and diversity; they are places of green, ecological or environmental regeneration; and they are places of attraction and engines of economic growth.”
– European Commission 2011:12

The positive rhetoric on the cities of Europe is a rather recent phenomenon and is quite in contrast with the way cities were viewed through most of the 20th century.

“Until about the second half of the 1990s, academ­ics and policy -makers alike commonly stressed the city’s problems and their complexity: cities were seen as places where a myriad of problems met: unemployment, deteriorating housing, concentra­tions of poor and minority ethnic groups, intoler­ance and racism, discrimination, social exclusion and environmental pollution. In short: cities were dumping places and so to be avoided.”
– Vranken 2010

Since then a more positive view of urban life has emerged and urban policy has since the 1990’s played a larger part an Eu­ropean context, while cities are increasingly seen as the basis for the good modern life. With urban policy, the city became framed as a particular physical and geographical unit capable of generating growth for society as a whole. As the city became a central stage for growth and development, new governance per­spectives emerged during the 90’s. Urban policy took a turn from being mainly focused on the living condi­tions of the city, to a focus on growth, through initia­tives which promotes commercial development.

Tax reliefs, improvements of infrastructure, attractive residential areas and cultural institutions are all men­tioned as elements connected to the turn towards a growth oriented policy for cities. This policy turn is also known as urban entrepreneurialism, which im­plies that the former industrial cities are transformed to new centers of finance, knowledge and service. Cities and urban growth has become central politi­cal points of focus, as cities are increasingly seen as “locomotives” driving regional and national develop­ment. Survival in the inter-urban competition has be­come central to policy making in and around cities.  The city has thus become a central stage for societal development.


A turn to urban governance

The focus on growth, creativity and innovation has had a large influence on recent developments in western cities, where the urban plan­ning focus is increasingly oriented towards “liveabil­ity” meant to attract the right people and businesses. The necessity of dealing with the complexities, no longer possible to control within the political/bureaucratic institutions, has led to new forms of cooperation between public authorities, companies, organizations and citizens in different kinds of policy networks.

The Danish policy researcher Karina Sehested (2003) claims that “the new societal develop­ment” in the diverse shapes of globalization, Euro­peization, economic restructuring, technological developments and social and cultural differentiation that is part of the late or post-modern society has led to a general fragmentation, differentiation and complexity in all parts of society – including the field of urban development.

These new pressures create new demands for political coordination able to man­age the complexity, which challenges the traditional hierarchical societal institutions based on bureaucra­cy and representative democracy. They also challenge the under­standing of “good urban planning” as rational and professionalized. In the ambigu­ous setting of urban policy and in a cross-pressure between new public management and innovation, urban planners are in need of rediscovering their roles, somewhere between urban authority and in­novators.

Urban planners and managers are in a situation, where technical expertise is no longer sufficient to develop the city and planning is becoming increas­ingly inseparable from the politics and power (Lis­sandrello, Grin 2011). It is increas­ingly recognized that planners act as active media­tors, transforming and developing the fields in which they work and it is argued from many sides that public institutions should become better at understanding user needs, as the institutional levels are often discon­nected from the reality and problems of the users and citizens.

The “turn to governance” can be seen as a historical destabilization of the political/administrative system which has allowed new actors to enter and gain voice in the urban development – for good and bad. The emphasis on inclusion of new actors in the urban development can roughly be divided into a category of rather elit­ist networks between the top layers of the public and private sector focused on growth, and more open and loose networks oriented towards urban renewal and development with inclusion of citizens and or­ganizations in civil society.

The former is described in depth by Danish architect Arne Gaardmand (1996) as the mahogany-table method, where the political, administrative and business elite of the city gets together to make political decisions about large scale urban developments. Other researchers have described how urban development happens in two separate tracks (Andersen, Ploger 2007), one con­necting to democratization and urban development with citizens through “urban renewal”, “urban regeneration programmes” and” participatory planning”, while the other is business driven and handled at high level negotiations.

“Two different political strategies, both oriented towards the development of the city, is developed but has a hard time meeting in practice and are represented by different actors in the city and at a national policy level”
– Sehested 2003:19 – author’s translation

The growth perspective and the urban renewal perspec­tive can be seen as rather distinctive policy tracks with different logics and politically split in both the state administration and the municipal policy mak­ing. The industrial policy and the welfare policy are handled differently and are not seen as a connected, the first is the policy of the city and the second the policy for the citizens.

While the turn to governance in principle opens up new possibilities for the democratization of cities and could point towards more sustainable urban development, it seems that much of the “real” and large scale planning of cities has rather become disconnected from democratic control in networked structures.


Urban assemblages

The urban assemblage perspective offers some insights into the challenges of dealing with urban development and possibly some openings for how to create new types of governance networks, that possibly can open alternatives to the entrepreneurial agenda in western cities.

The idea of the city as an economic unit or single ac­tor can be traced back to the works of Max Weber and much of the current literature on inter-urban competition, global cities and creative cities can be connected to this understanding of cities, as eco­nomic entities that act (Farías, Bender 2010). How­ever, from an urban assemblage perspective it is claimed that the idea of the city as a single actor is politically loaded, as it suggests a harmony of interests and to a large extent ignores the heterogeneous nature of the city. Peter Marcuse frames this critique as “a city does not compete for the Olympics, certain groups within it do, others often object mightily” (Marcuse paraphrased in Farías, Bender 2010:10) showing how controversy and disagreement is often ignored, while a false image of consensus is created. In an urban as­semblage perspective cities should be considered to be massive socio-technical artifacts, a multiple ob­ject where different realities meet, pointing to­wards a research practice focused on describing and analyzing the multiple enactments of the city.

“Assemblages do not form wholes or totalities, in which every part is defined by the whole, but rather emergent events or becomings”
– Farías, Bender 2010:16

Infrastructures (or cities understood as socio-techni­cal processes containing infrastructure networks) can be seen as central for “sociotechnical geome­tries of power” (Graham & Marvin 2001) as the construction of spaces of mobility for some, always implies the construction of barriers for others. Configurations of infrastructure networks are closely connected to struggles for social, economic, ecological and politi­cal power. In this way urban developments can well be understood in a perspective of “congealed social interest”.

People and institutions enroll technologies in their everyday life in the city and enact different versions of urban modernity and mobility. Infrastructure net­works are invoked in images and representations of urban “progress” and are central for the normative aspirations of urban actors such as planners and social activists in the definition of “the good city” (Graham & Marvin 2001).

The city is thus seen as a plurality of sites between which the connections are changing and contingent, assem­bling the city in different ways. The relation between the elements of which the assemblage is made does not necessarily alter the elements themselves. It is the inter­actions between human and non-human actors that form the assemblage and these interactions cannot be reduced to the individual properties of the parts. Rather than focusing on sites as singular objects or actors an assemblage perspective is interested in emergence and process, in the multiple temporali­ties and possibilities which exist in and develop cities (McFarlane 2011).

Assemblage urbanism is thus a contribution to urban studies, which emphasize focus on the concrete and situated practices of socio-material ordering in urban space. Unlike proponents of critical urbanism (Harvey 2008, Lefebvre 1972, Landry 2008) an as­semblage urbanism perspective does not attempt to explore overarching power structures which deter­mines city life and politics and does not (only) attrib­ute power to particular pre-established trajectories, but rather looks towards the diverse and emergent processes of becoming in the city.

On the other hand assemblage urbanism cannot be said to oppose the ideas of critical urbanism. Rather it is a lens through which we can see the contours of the emerging city (Farías, Bender 2010), in many ways supporting a critical perspective through thick descriptions of how urban inequalities are produced (McFarlane 2011) but at the same time pointing to the fact that the relations may be assembled other­wise.

”Urban assemblages entail clear issues of inequal­ity and power, but they also open up new spaces of democratic experimentation around… matters-of-concern, in and beyond the sites of ex­pert urban planning.”
– Blok 2013

The as­semblage perspective emphasizes potential through orientation to assembly, reassembly and constitu­tion, puts focus on the disjunctures between the actual and the possible (Blok 2013) and thus pro­vides insight into how the city develops and can be developed. From an assemblage perspective it is not only interesting to talk about a general turn towards “liveable cities”, but also how the notion of liveability influences and destabilizes the different actor-net­works of the city and opens for other developmental patterns.

In this perspective a potential for public governance is to work with meta-governance strategies. Here, the role of public man­agers is not to produce public innovation by them­selves, but rather to create open and flexible arenas for interaction and collaboration between actors, who in different ways can contribute to public inno­vation and to create multiple possible futures in the city.


About the author
Peter Munthe-Kaas is a Copenhagen based researcher and designer. He works in the Borderland between research, activism, LARP, performance and urban development. Peter wants to develop new ways of living together in the cities of the future.

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