Urban Empowerment: Cultures of Participation and Learning

This pilot project within Mistra Urban Futures ran 2010 and 2011 in Hammarkullen, a city district in Gothenburg. Issues involving ‘empowerment’ are thought to be of great value in urban planning and city administration. In Swedish, we first called this ‘cultures of participation and learning,’ but later we began talking about ‘capacity-building processes in which citizens or residents are involved.’ We view these as processes in which city residents are codesigers of the city’s development, that is, citizens become producers rather than merely consumers of the city. Such processes release and transform energy. In a certain respect, they can also be seen as a source of new energy in urban development.

Citizen participation has been of particular interest given that, in 2011, Gothenburg changed its administrative structure from being based on 21 city districts to 10. At the same time, new regulations have been put in place, entailing that some of the responsibility for citizen dialogue on urban development – that concerning the physical environment – has been delegated to the city district level. Decisions are still made by central, specialized committees, but responsibility for pursuing a dialogue with citizens or residents now lies with the city district councils.

Those of us in the pilot project have seen that, at the local level, this shift is appreciated by many, and that both civil servants and active residents have mobilized themselves to take on this new challenge. Suddenly, there were possibilities for linking social and physical aspects. Such connection had previously been difficult, the city district councils being responsible for ‘soft’ and the central committees for ‘hard’ issues. A developmental process has begun in which citizens or residents are involved, in collaboration with local civil servants, in employing a use of physical structures as a tool in social development.