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How “alternative” alternative urban policies really are?

Looking at participatory budgeting through the lenses of the right to the city
Wojciech Kębłowski et Mathieu Van Criekingen


Les budgets participatifs sont souvent considérés comme un exemple de dispositif alternatif en matière de politique urbaine, en rupture avec les principes dominants de l’entrepreneurialisme urbain. Malgré sa popularité croissante aux yeux de nombre d’analystes des politiques urbaines, de militants associatifs ou de praticiens, peu de travaux ont cherché à évaluer jusqu’à quel point des pratiques se revendiquant du modèle du budget participatif dans différentes villes présentaient effectivement un caractère “alternatif”. Cet article propose une évaluation critique en ce sens de deux expériences de budgets participatifs menées respectivement à Cordoue, dans le Sud de l’Espagne, et à Sopot, dans le Nord de la Pologne. Cette analyse est appuyée sur une opérationnalisation du concept de “droit à la ville” d’Henri Lefebvre et la mise en regard de celui-ci avec des éléments tirés de la littérature critique sur la participation citoyenne dans les politiques urbaines actuelles. Nos résultats suggèrent que la capacité des budgets participatifs à incarner une alternative à l’entrepreneurialisme urbain est conditionnée par un certain nombre d’aspects complexes. Tandis que l’idée de budget participatif est reprise dans de nombreuses villes de par le monde en tant que référence en matière de politique alternative, les pratiques mises en œuvre en son nom peuvent de fait poursuivre des objectifs et produire des résultats très largement en phase avec les principes de l’entrepreneurialisme urbain.

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1As the social and ecological damages of policy practices cast in the mould of entrepreneurial urban governance (Harvey, 1989) become even more patent and contested – not least, very recently, in Istanbul or Rio de Janeiro – the need for advancement of urban policy practices that would radically break with the neoliberal tenets of urban entrepreneurialism appears even more pressing. To respond to this urgency, a variety of urban theories (e.g. Brenner et al., 2012), policy models and practices (e.g. Parker et al., 2007) dedicated – at least partly – to set up alternative approaches have been scrutinised in recent contributions to the urban studies literature. Notable in many of these contributions is a renewed interest for the notion of a “right to the city”, once introduced by Henri Lefebvre ([1968] 1996).

2However, in our view, there is a lack of systematic and critical assessments of the actual nature of existing urban policy models and practices that allegedly embody an “alternative” character. After all, city-marketing or real estate narratives praising “alternative” ways of urban living (but in what sense?) or even the “right to the city” (but to what kind of city, and for whom?) are not so unusual. Against this background, our paper engages in a critical assessment of an existing urban policy experience that has received much attention in recent years from urban policy analysts, activists and practitioners alike – namely participatory budgeting (PB).

  • 1  UN-HABITAT (2004) recognises PB as “an innovative urban management practice with excellent potenti (...)
  • 2  According to Sintomer et al. (2012, p. 4), depending on the definition of and criteria for PB, bet (...)

3For it enables “ordinary” city-dwellers to direct the allocation of (part of) the city’s financial resources, PB may be a priori regarded as an example of an urban policy experience detached from the entrepreneurial mainstream. Accordingly, ever since its original implementation in 1989 in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, PB has been identified as “one of the very few alternatives for transforming public investments from favours into rights, albeit with a limited scope” (Souza, 2011, p. 161). Furthermore, its potential to foster alternative patterns of urban development has been implicitly suggested by a number of institutional actors such as the World Bank or UN-HABITAT1. PB has also become a “(...) central topic of discussion and [a] significant field of innovation for those involved in democracy and local development” (Cabannes, 2004, p. 27), and has even been considered by some prominent voices as “one of the most successful participatory instruments of the past 15 years” (Sintomer et al., 2008, p. 164). Finally, PB has proved to be highly mobile at transnational scales, for it has now been embraced by a plethora of urban authorities2 across the world eager to adopt new mechanisms for reaching out to their residents, addressing concerns about the loss of their administration’s legitimacy, or finding a response to the limits of urban participation (Ganuza & Nez, 2012). These processes and declarations have encouraged us to consider analysing PB against its potential to embody an “alternative” urban policy.

4However, despite increasing popularity of PB, few works have effectively examined the actual “alternative” character of contingent policy practices carrying the PB label in different urban contexts. A major reason for this, we argue, lies in the lack of an appropriate theoretically-informed yet operational framework. Our paper intends to build such a framework. To do so, it returns to Lefebvre’s conceptualisation of “the right to the city”, for this concept offers a radical – though premonitory – intellectual antidote to the urban entrepreneurial policy mainstream.

5We start by bringing out the core ingredients of the original formulation of the notion of the right to the city, and further combine them with elements put forward in literature on citizen participation in urban government and planning (section 1). The combination of insights from both notions – right to the city and participation – enables us to build a framework for an analysis of participatory budgeting, at two levels – theoretical and empirical. We first assess, on a theoretical level, how far the model of PB actually matches our delineation of what makes an alternative to urban entrepreneurialism (section 2). We then turn in section 3 and 4 to an empirical analysis of two practices of PB, in two quite different urban contexts, namely Cordoba in Southern Spain and Sopot in Northern Poland. In each case, we examine the origins and circumstances of the implementation of PB, its actual content as well as the motivations of the diverse actors and networks involved. Our findings suggest that importing a highly “successful” policy model seemingly detached from entrepreneurial principles may actually lead to very divergent policy practices, including ones indeed quite close to the latter principles.

1. Building an analytical framework

1.1. The right to the city as reference

6Henri Lefebvre’s original call for “the right to the city” in the late 1960s expresses a radical criticism of the then predominant Fordist-Keynesian mode of capitalist urbanisation and its associated functionalist paradigm of urban planning. For Lefebvre, the ubiquitous character of urbanisation implied that urban issues should from now on constitute a key arena of opposition to capitalism. Lefebvre most notably criticised the prioritisation of exchange value over use value in the definition and conduct of urban policies, leading to a widespread commodification and fragmentation of urban life. Accordingly, following Lefebvre, the essence of any urban theory or policy claiming a genuinely “alternative” character would lie in foregrounding the use value of urban space to the detriment of exchange values, that is, to impose the needs and aspirations of (present and future) city’s inhabitants over the capitalist interests of land/property owners, developers and entrepreneurs – whether the latter are private or public entities.

7On this ground, Lefebvre urged to enunciate a new right – “the right to the city”. His point was not to advocate another addition to the list of existing liberal-democratic rights, but to delineate a strategy dedicated to transfer power over the appropriation and production of urban space out from the market’s and state’s hands, to those of inhabitants (Purcell, 2002; 2014), hence introducing politics of self-management (“autogestion”) of the city by and for its citizenry. This new right should therefore act as

“[...] a transformed and renewed right to urban life [in which] the ‘urban’, place of encounter, priority of use value, inscription in space of a time [are] promoted to the rank of a supreme resource among all resources” (Lefebvre, [1968] 1996, p. 158).

8For Lefebvre, as well as for a number of academics engaged in recent debates (e.g. Brenner et al., 2012; Harvey, 2012), the process of change called for by this theoretical formulation cannot be considered outside the realm of existing and situated – hence contingent – urban struggles. Looking for a ready-made “recipe” to implement the right to the city hic et nunc – designed beforehand and “once and for all” – would be vain and pointless. Instead, the precise content, form and direction of the right to the city have to be continuously (re)formulated and (re)examined in order to strengthen existing struggles. In this perspective, we intend here to use Lefebvre’s conceptualisation as a reference to assess the (possible or actual) “alternative” character of existing policy models or practices – participatory budgeting being one of them.

  • 3  For a municipal example see Charte montréalaise (2007) and the Mexico City charter (Zárate, 2010). (...)

9Recent academic debates and policy initiatives have often diluted the transformative ambition of Lefebvre’s original call for an alternative mode of social production of urban space. Numerous academics have indeed interpreted it as dividable into separate rights adapted to a series of specific socio-economic aspects: right to housing, mobility, natural resources, aesthetics, education, or healthcare (Attoh, 2011). Cataloguing distinct rights has also been characteristic of the works of diverse international institutions such as Habitat International Coalition (World Charter for the Right to the City, 2004), the Council of Europe (European Urban Charter II, 2008), the United Nations (European Charter for the Safeguarding of Human Rights in the City, 2006), many municipal, national and federal governments3 as well as a plethora of urban social movements (Sugranyes & Mathivet, 2010). These divided interpretations further position the right to the city in the broader realm of human rights, and assume its individualistic character.

  • 4  Emphasis added by authors.

10This approach greatly limits the potential of Lefebvre’s concept, for such inventories of individual claims address only “particular aspects of neoliberal policy” (Mayer, 2012, p. 75), hence loosing sight of the systemic character of the critique and its commitment to enforce alternatives to existing power configurations. Yet, in a number of recent re-interpretations, the right to the city has re-acquired a much broader sense. Peter Marcuse recognises it as a common “right to totality, a complexity” (2012, p. 35) that constitutes a fundamental demand for a new urban system. This demand consists of a set of interrelated elements geared towards the appropriation and production of urban space by its inhabitants, stretching far beyond the possibility for urban dwellers to physically occupy existing urban space (Mitchell, 2003). These interpretations challenge the existing configurations of power and are concerned with all aspects regarding the urban environment, shaping its social, political, built or aesthetic dimensions (Purcell, 2014). The concept of “city” is thus approached as “a synecdoche for society” as a whole (Marcuse, 2009, p. 244). Put this way, the right to the city also reaches beyond altering existing socio-spatial configurations and puts forward the need for “utopias of spatial form”4 (Harvey & Potter, 2011, p. 46).

11In a nutshell, claiming the right to the city along Lefebvrian lines concurrently entails (1) enabling the appropriation and production of urban space by inhabitants, (2) challenging existing configurations of power, (3) considering all aspects regarding the urban environment, and (4) building an “urgent utopia” (Purcell, 2014), that is, a city/society beyond capitalism. In order to build the analytic framework against which the hypothetically alternative character of participatory budgeting (or other policy practices or models) could be tested, we now turn to the critical literature on citizen’s participation in order to point out the elements of an ideal-type participatory scheme that would materialize each of the dimensions of the (Lefebvrian) right to the city. These elements are presented (in italics) in the following paragraphs, and then synthetized in figure 1.

1.2. Citizen participation as a crucial component

12Given the strategic centrality of users and use values of urban space in Lefebvre’s conceptualisation, genuine involvement of inhabitants in urban policy-making – nowadays baptised “citizen participation” – is undoubtedly a key and necessary component in any possible operationalisation of the right to the city. However, as Lefebvre anticipated it, experiences of citizens’ participation in urban policy-making have now proven to entail highly controversial practices in many different urban contexts. This has even brought some scholars to conclude that participation is “entirely appropriate to the neoliberal age” (Pearce, 2010, p. 14), or, more subtly, that urban entrepreneurial agendas are prone to harness citizens’ participation in “thinly veiled attempts at securing legitimacy for and cooperation with policies already adopted that favour capitalist growth” (Silver et al., 2010, p. 454; see also Huisman, 2014).

  • 5  All translations from French, Polish and Spanish references come from the authors of this text.

13First, various contributions to the critical literature on citizen participation have demonstrated that existing participatory frameworks often fail to recognise the unequal distribution of resources and capacities among actors, notably regarding their social and cultural capital, access to information, technical expertise, oratorical skills, and time availability (Silver et al. 2010). Accordingly, such frameworks often reproduce a class bias, since certain groups (e.g. the most informed, educated or organised) tend to participate more than others, and in different ways (e.g. men tend to assume managerial roles more frequently than women). Accordingly, critical scholarship emphasises that participatory schemes should effectively provide inclusive conditions for direct citizen involvement, that is, participation should be capable of reconciling the institutional / top-down and non-institutional / bottom-up forms of activity. On the one hand, participatory process cannot be engineered in a purely “top-down” fashion, regardless of urban social movements’ and citizen groups’ voices and existing know-how, and the context of previous participatory experiences (Martínez, 2010). Neither should it have an obligatory character, for citizens should have a right to consciously choose not to participate in a given format – as “non-participation is also participation” (Think Tank Niepartycypacja, 2012, p. 98)5. On the other hand, the “bottom-up” approach of local participation must not be glorified, for it may enforce the creation of parochial spaces dominated by particular groups pushing forward excluding, NIMBY-ist claims.

14Furthermore, to enable inhabitants to appropriate and produce urban space, participative practices should foster deliberation, but must not a priori force a consensus among participants. Rather, the expression of dissent is “the first condition of subsequent dialogue” (Sadura, 2012, p. 199). As Pretty (1995) points out, genuine participatory projects should therefore be interactive. In other words, participation should be approached “as a right, not just the means” (p. 1252), and engage participants in a mutual learning experience.

  • 6  Emphasis added by authors.

15These aspects are essential to enable participation to have a redistributive character. At stake here is the capacity for city-dwellers involved in the participatory scheme to challenge the existing configurations of powerdirecting the production of urban space. Hence, participatory schemes should not be created for, but directly co-created with and by city-dwellers (Malewski, 2012) – regardless of their legal, economic or social status. In other words, instead of a “representative”function (i.e. providing no more than a voice for the citizens), an “instrumental”one (i.e. providing meansof increasing efficiency of pre-established policy schemes), or anominal”one (i.e. providing an instrument of displayfor some politicians), participation should have a “political6 character (White, 1996).

16Finally, to become concerned with all aspects regarding the urban environmentand avoid parochialisms, participatory projects must acquire a holistic, multi-scalar dimension, reflecting on the whole city and – even beyond it – the whole society, that is, reaching beyond administrative boundaries and parochial spaces or interests. Participation should thereby become both effective and transformative: produce tangible, though unforced results, that contribute to a genuine transformation of the urban realm, and a lasting change of power relations that reaches beyond existing institutional frameworks.

Figure 1. What makes an alternative urban policy? A reference framework

Right to the city


Enabling appropriation and production of urban space by inhabitants

Inclusive: responding to unequal capacities among potential participants

Reconciling institutional/top-down and non-institutional/bottom-up/elements

Deliberative: providing space for conflict/dissensus and deliberation/consensus

Interactive: approaching participation as a right involving participants in a mutual learning experience

Challenging existing configurations of power

Redistributive: transferring significant power towards city-dwellers; co-created with and by, not for them.

Political:as opposed to de-politicised, consent-manufacturing techniques)

Concerned with all aspects regarding the urban environment

Holistic and multi-scalar: concerned with the whole (urban) society and territory, reaching beyond administrative boundaries, parochial spaces and interests

Effective: producing tangible, yet not forced outcomes


Transformative: producing a lasting change of power relations that reaches beyond existing institutional frameworks

Source: authors’ elaboration

17Compared to Béal and Rousseau’s (2013) delineation of the three main characteristics of alternative urban policies, our view acknowledges that alternatives to urban entrepreneurialism (1) should be sought in working beyond existing market mechanisms and configurations of power, and (2) should establish new regulations that address head-on issues of socio-spatial inequalities, rather than relying on “trickle-down effects” stimulated by investment in selected social groups (“visitor” or “creative” class) or territories (“growth” or “leverage” zones). However, in our view, such alternatives need not necessarily rely on bottom-up movements and motivations alone. Although the “the driving force” of urban citizens is undoubtedly crucial, our framework does not disregard the role of existing “top-down” institutions in co-creating and reinforcing genuinely alternative policies and practices.

18Our subsequent analysis of participatory budgeting (PB) as a potential alternative to the entrepreneurial way of running cities will refer to this framework. Methodologically, we use it as an “urban alternative checklist,” composed of interrelated conditions that all have to be fulfilled in order for a given policy model or practice to constitute an alternative in a Lefebvrian sense.

2. Participatory budgeting, an alternative policy model?

19Participatory budgeting has been defined as a policy practice enabling citizens to partake in the decision-making process concerning the allocation of (part of) urban financial resources. Sintomer et al. (2008, p. 168) propose a comprehensive definition of PB that distinguishes five specific features: a participatory practice that has (1) a cyclic character, (2) enforces deliberation at special fora and meetings concerning (3) the allocation of a precisely delineated amount of financial resources, (4) whose scope reaches beyond the neighbourhood scale, and (5) guarantees a liability for the results.

20In numerous studies (e.g. Hartz-Karp & Wampler, 2012; Ganuza & Nez, 2012; Górski, 2007; Shah, 2007), the innovative character of PB is identified in its ability to directly involve non-expert, non-elected citizens, and to work towards combatting social and political exclusion through creating a highly inclusive framework that has the capacity to challenge existing power relations and redistribute control over urban development to citizens. In a number of South American cities, PB has effectively inverted priorities by redirecting public funds towards deprived groups and areas (often in urban peripheries) (Cabannes, 2004). It has thus aspired to struggle against existing governance patterns favouring investment in strategic inner-city zones, and reinforcing socio-spatial polarisation.

21However, the “alternative” character of PB should not be taken for granted. We argue that the potential of PB to embody a genuine alternative to urban entrepreneurial agendas is deeply conditioned by a series of aspects that a PB project should involve. Guided by the framework established in the previous section, we attempt to identify such conditional aspects by reviewing existing works on PB, thus making clear to what extent PB matches notions of the right to the city and participation. These aspects regard the context for PB, the process it entails, and the results it produces.

2.1. Inclusive and deliberative?

22The potential of PB to effectively provide the right to appropriate and produce urban space depends primarily on two basic contextual aspects. First, as Górski (2007) demonstrates, PB has to relate to existing traditions of citizen activism and participation. This is the case in Porto Alegre, where PB has built on skills and strategies developed through the struggles of several neighbourhood associations (“associações de barrio”) against the authoritarian regime that ruled Brazil between 1964 and 1985. Second, although largely dependent on bottom-up initiatives, PB to a great extent depends on political will to implement it, and respect for its procedures and outcomes. However, as Ganuza et al. (2013) have demonstrated, urban social movements and formalised citizen groups may contest PB as a political strategy aiming at diminishing their role as knowledgeable and experienced actors in urban decision-making. Therefore, it is necessary for PB to rely on “a conjunction of top-down and bottom-up processes” (Sintomer et al. 2008, p. 167) through which diverse actors (among which the administration and urban social movements) seek to realise their pragmatic goals. This juxtaposition may help “‘[scale] up’ activism from neighbourhoods to municipal and district levels” (Baiocchi, 2003, p. 58)

23Although PB appears to open up the deliberation about urban development and to enable city-dwellers to appropriate and produce urban space to an unprecedented scale, there is strong evidence that PB tends to incorporate socio-economic biases. PB initiatives have too often been demonstrated as re-creating a divide between “articulate and non-articulate actors, new participants and ‘professional citizens’, [...] under-representing certain groups (for instance women, the low-educated, or the poor)” (Baierle 2010, p. 57), and failing to engage new participants in the long term (Sintomer et al. 2008). Furthermore, even when founded upon an elaborate system of fora providing framework for deliberation among the participants (between citizens and the local administration as well as among citizens), PB may fail to incorporate tensions deriving from the plurality of views represented at the negotiation table since dissensus and conflicts are often regarded as having a limiting, rather than productive quality.

24The inability to satisfy these basic conditions has allowed politicians, international development agencies or even businesses to “hijack” PB as a mere efficiency-building tool revolving around pre-defined goals, applied to combat corruption, foster transparency of decision-making processes, increase tax collection, or strengthen the positions of politicians at the expense of rivals (Shah, 2007). Consequently, unless the aforementioned contextual elements are present, PB may assume a purely instrumental character, and lose any transformative ambitions (see section 2.5.).

2.2. Interactive?

25Similarly, PB is not necessarily interactive. It may fail to combine elements of direct and representative democracy, and consequently to address the issue of unequal capacities among potential participants. It is not always proceeded by a coherent and widespread information campaign, and based on a mutual and profound learning process providing city-dwellers with key skills and competences, and empowering them vis-à-vis the usual decision-makers. Górski (2007) demonstrates how PB participants depending too excessively for information on local administration sources may become co-opted to rubber-stamp decisions that have already been taken. Thus, the more profound the learning process is – hence the better the citizens’ technical skills and knowledge regarding urban development are – the more difficult it becomes for urban regimes to question the empowered citizens’ attempts to shape urban space and reach beyond existing political visions and priorities.

2.3. Redistributive?

26The interactive character of PB is closely related to redistributing power to citizens and entitling them to challenge the existing configurations of power. Again, PB may have a high capacity in this regard, provided that a number of conditions are fulfilled. First, city-dwellers participating in PB should be able to control the process determining rules and regulations behind each round of PB, including a list of general subjects for discussion, and citywide criteria for selection of particular investment proposals (Cabannes, 2004). Moreover, key responsibilities with regard to allocation of public finances should be delegated to new, directly elected bodies responsible for deliberation, prioritisation, selection and finally implementation of investment decisions. The point is about “moving the locus of decision-making from the private offices of politicians and technocrats to public forums” (Wampler, 2007, p. 22) such as the city-wide PB council (e.g. Conselho do Orçamento Participativo in Porto Alegre) becoming the main venue for negotiations between local officials, representatives of civic associations and city-dwellers.

2.4. Holistic and multi-scalar?

27PB that operates at various scales — that of neighbourhood, district, and the whole city — may potentially acquire a holistic character, and become concerned with the total sum of aspects regarding the urban environment. These scales are can be effectively combined at thematic meetings (focusing on general themes and priorities rather than particular territories and projects), at proceedings of the PB council, and at the so-called “bus caravan of priorities” that allows participants to visits locations of proposed PB projects. This, however, does not always entail that the balance between designing specific projects and creating broad urban agendas is found.

28Similarly, its potential to reach beyond existing socio-economic paradigm and propose an utopian yet practical alternative to it, seems rather limited. Górski (2007) demonstrates that “projects related to small infrastructure [awake] more interest among city-dwellers than long-term urban policy” (89), and “there are […] no guarantees that participants will make the leap from addressing their communities’ lack of basic infrastructure to understanding and challenging the broader socioeconomic forces that shape their lives” (Wampler, 2007, p. 47). National, international or global issues have seldom been the subject of PB, while endeavours to implement it on a regional or national level have posed a number of related problems related to its overall productivity and quality (Shah 2007).

2.5. Transformative?

29Producing a lasting change of power relations and advancing an alternative to existing urban regimes through PB proves correspondingly difficult. Certainly, some PB projects have been capable of producing tangible effects through a swift realisation of investment proposals emerging from its deliberation. These effects have in turn a direct influence on the legitimacy of PB, for “citizens realise that there is a direct connection between the time they dedicate to participatory budgeting and changes in policy outcomes” (Wampler, 2007, p. 50). However, the amount of financing that PB allows city-dwellers to capture – and thus its overall impact – is almost always limited to a fraction of “new capital investment expenditures” (op. cit., p. 35). Until now, the majority of PB projects have not, unlike in the case of Porto Alegre, allowed city-dwellers to decide upon the whole investment budget (Górski, 2007). Furthermore, unlike in Porto Alegre, the majority of contemporary PB projects did not change the ways administrations operate – through decentralisation reforms the establishment of lasting co-operation between various administrative units (Baierle, 2010, Ganuza & Baiocchi, 2012).

30Eventually, reviewing literature suggests that PB can effectively provide city-dwellers with new capacities to appropriate and produce space, to challenge existing configurations of power, and to advance alternative visions of possible futures regarding the urban environment writ large. However, it reveals simultaneously that this provision of new capacities is conditional on the presence of a series of key aspects. The latter are synthesised in Figure 2, referring to our reference framework from Figure 1.

 Figure 2. What makes PB an alternative urban policy? An analytical framework

Right to the city


Participatory budgeting

Enabling appropriation and production of urban space by inhabitants

Reconciling top-down and bottom-up elements

Based on prior participatory traditions;
Supported by a political will to implement it and respect is rules and outcomes;
Bringing together top-down and bottom-up processes and motivations;
Bridging the divide between “articulate” and “non-articulate” actors;


Incorporating an elaborate system of fora:
providing framework for deliberation between not only participants and the local administration, but also among participants;
incorporating tensions deriving from the plurality of views represented.


Integrating elements of representative and direct democracy;
Including of a profound and mutual learning experience.

Challenging the existing configurations of power

Political character

Empowering participants, and enabling them to determine the rules behind PB, the subjects for discussion within PB, and the city-wide criteria for selection of proposals;
Delegating key responsibilities to new, directly elected bodies, in particular the citywide PB council.

Concerned with total sum of aspects regarding urban environment

Holistic and multi-scalar

Reconciling various scales (neighbourhood, district, city)
Finding balance between specific projects and broad political agendas.


Swift realisation of investment proposals



Including the majority of investment expenditures;
Deriving from (rather than intending to initiate) an administrative reform.

Source: authors’ elaboration

31This expanded analytical framework will now be applied on an empirical level, in an attempt to determine to what extent two cases of PB — in Cordoba, Spain and Sopot, Poland — have constituted an alternative to urban entrepreneurialism.

3. Participatory budgeting in Cordoba, Spain

32The empirical research in each city is based on (1) an analysis of documents and publications concerning PB in each city, and (2) a series of 19 semi-structured, face-to-face interviews conducted in May–August 2012 with key actors involved in PB in Cordoba and Sopot including local politicians (primarily city councilors), administration (primarily Town Hall) employees, local participation experts, civic associations and citizen groups.

33We have intentionally focused on Cordoba and Sopot as two very dissimilar cases. First, while Cordoba is one of the first European municipalities to have implemented PB (between 2001 and 2007), Sopot is one of the first Eastern European cases, and the first Polish one, that which has emerged very recently (in 2011). Second, while left-wing governments that almost continuously ruled Cordoba between 1979 and 2011 were directly inspired by Brazilian PB experiences to create a model later identified as “Porto Alegre in Europe” (Sintomer et al. 2008, p. 170), Sopot’s centre-right and right-wing local government and mayor – in power since 1989 – have been under clear influence of the urban entrepreneurial ideology. Third, while most wealth and income indicators rank Cordoba well below the Spanish average, Sopot, a sea and spa resort, takes pride in being one of the richest Polish municipalities. Fourth, while Cordoba is a middle-sized provincial capital (328,000 inhabitants), Sopot’s population is much smaller (38,000), yet it constitutes part of the Tricity agglomeration (Gdańsk–Sopot–Gdynia; 748.000 inhabitants). Last but not least, despite these differences, both cases have functioned as “best practices” of PB in Spain and Poland respectively.

3.1. Context: “democratisation of participation”

34Although the first round of PB in Cordoba was held in 2001, it had been built upon participatory traditions dating back to urban social movements’ struggle against general Franco’s regime (Ganuza & Nez 2012). Translated into political agendas after the first post-dictatorship municipal elections in 1979, those traditions prompted Cordoba’s elected authorities to gradually build an elaborate participatory framework. The latter was based on 14 District Councils (“Consejos de Distrito”) embracing all community associations from a given district, whose presidents formed the Citizen Movement Council (“Consejo del Movimiento Ciudadano”), and the Network of Municipal Civic Centres (“la Red de Centros Cívicos Municipales”) operating at the district level. The participatory system in Cordoba reinforced “the process of co-management and co-responsibility” (Ayuntamiento de Córdoba, 2007, p. 7) over the urban development and made the city a benchmark for citizen participation nationwide, even before it considered implementing PB.

35Furthermore, PB in Cordoba reconciliated “top-down” and “bottom-up” goals and motivations from its very beginning. Both the left-wing municipal government (headed by the mayor) and the Federation of Community Associations called Al-Zahara (Federación de Asociaciones Vecinales Al-Zahara) expressed their interest in “borrowing” the PB experiment from Porto Alegre to address a general crisis of citizen participation observed across Spain at the end of 1990s — and stood behind its implementation throughout the following years.

  • 7  Interview with a Town Hall representative.

36On the one hand, the City Council’s objectives were genuinely transformative, beyond engaging in PB. It enthusiastically approached PB as a project that could redesign the social and political urban model through “democratisation of participation”7 believing that the existing participatory framework had too much of a consultative character, and was too dependent on Al-Zahara. PB was therefore to directly involve the citizenry and hence re-define their relationship with the administration, to empower them, and to provide them with significantly more control over urban development. Thus, PB was to allow for a redefinition of priorities beyond the urban decision-making process itself, preventing socio-spatial polarisation.

  • 8  Interview with a member of the board of Al-Zahara.

37On the other hand, Al-Zahara viewed PB as an opportunity to improve their methods of representing the citizens’ interest in negotiations with the local political class8. At the same time, as Ganuza & Nez (2012) note, Al-Zahara expected to be granted more power in the participatory mechanism.

38In sum, the translation of PB from Porto Alegre to Cordoba was designed primarily by institutional actors, namely the municipal administration, and a highly institutionalised set of community associations, closely-tied to political parties. This indicates that no purely “bottom-up” pressure was involved in the conception of PB in Cordoba.

3.2. Process: an elaborate methodology

39PB in Cordoba ran annually over two time periods: 2001–2004 and 2005–2007. We will focus here on the first one, as it followed a more transformative methodology. Three stages of the process could be distinguished (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Key structural elements of the PB mechanism in Cordoba in 2001–2003

Figure 3. Key structural elements of the PB mechanism in Cordoba in 2001–2003

Source: authors’ elaboration

40The first stage (January–February) began with 14 District Assemblies (“Asambleas de Distrito”) summoned by the City Council to inform the public about the results of the previous year’s round of PB, and choosing PB Officers (“Agentes”) directly from their attendees. The Officers then took part in a training preparing them to facilitate and monitor PB, and discussed the Self-Regulation (“Autorreglamento”) — an official document outlining in detail the PB framework (responsibilities of all bodies and actors involved in PB, structure of municipal budget, city-wide thematic priorities, criteria for prioritisation of investment proposals).

41In the second stage (March–June), at the District Boards (“Mesas de Distrito”), PB Officers alongside representatives of all associations operating in a given district prepared the Neighbourhood Assemblies. It is essentially at these meetings, facilitated by the PB Officers, that citizens defined their neighbourhood’s needs and accordingly formulated and prioritised actual investment proposals. Crucially, each attendee carried only one vote and, although the District Board would subsequently reconcile their proposals lists with the thematic priorities, at no point could the order of priorities established within a given Neighbourhood Assembly be altered.

42The third stage (July–September) commenced with the District Assemblies, which this time gathered to focus on the whole city. Each Assembly discussed the lists of priorities from each district and elected two PB Representatives (“Representantes”) and their two substitutes. Unlike PB Officers, PB Representatives had a decision-making power, although limited by the Self-Regulation — for instance, they could not change the order of prioritised proposals from the districts. From then on, experts from the Technical Board accompany PB Representatives, providing advice concerning legal and financial feasibility of particular proposals. PB Representatives took part in a “bus caravan of priorities” similar to that in Porto Alegre. Finally, the PB representatives gathered at a one-day long City Assembly (“Asamblea de Ciudad”) to apply the priorities delineated by the Self-Regulation to proposals from all districts, thus creating a list of projects for the whole city. This list was then passed on the municipal government to be incorporated into the city budget.

43Along the whole process, the Support and Follow-Up Board (“Mesa de Apoyo y Seguimiento”) operated, consisting of representatives of the Citizens’ Movement Council and the Community Associations, PB Officers who had been elected in the Neighbourhood Assemblies, and experts representing technical areas that PB dealt with in a given year. The Board monitored the process from initiation to completion in order to ensure that the agreed priorities and decisions were not violated.

  • 9  Interview with an IESA (Instituto de Estudios Sociales Avanzados – Institute for Advanced Social S (...)

44This mechanism had a fairly large capacity to realise nearly all ingredients of the right to the city. First of all, it provided the city-dwellers with a highly inclusive framework for appropriation and production of urban space. All PB-related meetings were open to the public, and no participation criteria were applied, with participants in no way officially divided according to their official positions, capacities, or interests – thus bridging the gap between “articulate” and “non-articulate” actors. The methodology applied in PB further addressed specific personal limitations – for instance by limiting the length of each meeting to maximum two hours, and organising toy libraries (“ludotecas”), in which parents could have their children taken care of during the meetings. Moreover, participants could adjust the extent of their involvement: from attending one or several meetings, to applying to assuming the role of a PB Officer or Representative. As a result, PB proved very efficient in terms of attracting new participants, as “more or less one in four [of them] had never participated before”9. Ganuza & Francés (2012) and official Town Hall publications (Ayuntamiento de Córdoba, 2007) demonstrate that ideological and socio-economic biases characteristic of participatory projects (e.g. over-representation of educated persons, of members of existing associations and left-wing supporters) occurred initially, displaying an over-representation of the age groups between 30 and 60, educated persons, members of existing civic associations (in particular those belonging to the Al-Zahara), and, to a lesser extent, women. PB gathered a group expressing significantly stronger interest in politics that the Spanish average, in which right-wing supporters were largely underrepresented. However, this bias partially faded away with every PB round — for instance, over time the initial perception of PB as a left-wing political project has changed, thus encouraging different views and interests to enter the process. Quite importantly, experience in participation in PB has had relatively low impact on inclusion patterns in subsequent rounds.

45Cordoba’s PB further enabled high quality deliberation, as its multi-staged framework incorporated an impartial prioritisation mechanism “in which citizens not only bargain[ed] for their own interests, but also [had to] evaluate the distribution of scarce resources in the best possible way within the municipality.” (Ganuza and Francés, 2012, p. 288). At the same time, it provided space for a conflict in which a polarity of opinions and proposals could be presented.

  • 10  Interview with a member of the board of Al-Zahara.

46Inclusive and deliberative character of Cordoba’s PB enabled the process to become not only interactive and redistributive, but also interactive, as it built upon a comprehensive learning experience continuously empowering citizens. Through workshops organized at the very first stage, participants acquired a profound understanding of the potential and limits of PB, as well as investment needs beyond the level of particular neighbourhood or district. PB therefore prepared the citizenry to assume key responsibilities with regard to allocation of public finances: determining rules and regulations behind the process, composing a list of general subjects for discussion, establishing city-wide criteria for selection of investment proposals, and supervising their realization. To achieve this, new political bodies have been established, combining elements of direct democracy (applied at District and Neighbourhood Assemblies, in the process prioritisation of proposals, election of PB Officers and Representatives, and creation of the Self-Regulation) and representative democracy (with the District Board, City Assembly, as well as the Support and Follow-Up Board acting on behalf of the citizenry). Moreover, PB involved an elaborate division of power preventing any actor from gaining too much power within the process. Thus, although PB Officers could alter the Self-Regulation, they could not change the content or order of proposals made at the Neighbourhood Assemblies. PB Representatives, responsible for creating the final proposal for the city, had to adhere to previously established priorities, unable to alter neither the order nor the content of proposals. Although civic associations, technical personnel and local politicians facilitated the process and provided advice, they did not hold a privileged position in the debate. Thus the balance has been achieved between engaging institutional actors and citizens, the latter having been provided unprecedented control over urban development, and enabled challenge existing configurations of power. Notably, this transformation was met with harsh opposition from Al-Zahara, who declared “too much power had been given to the people.”10

  • 11  In 2001 only infrastructural investments were debated, while in 2002 and 2003 PB involved four “ar (...)
  • 12  Interview with a Town Hall expert.

47Having centred upon a few aspects of urban development11, with “vital issues such as mobility, security, and public services left aside,”12 Cordoba’s PB did not quite acquire a holistic character. It nonetheless was multi-scalar, effectively reconciling needs and ideas concerning particular neighbourhoods and districts with those of the whole city, as well as considering both specific projects and broad urban policies. Interestingly, it attempted to transcend the local/urban scale, as one if its thematic “areas” was devoted to “Co-operation”, involving projects implemented in developing countries.

3.3. Results: limited yet redistributive impact

  • 13 Idem.

48Between 2001 and 2003, PB in Cordoba produced numerous projects that followed the principle of redistribution of resources, that is, focusing on spatially and socially deprived areas, and channelling more than one third of its financial resources to urban peripheries. Outcomes did not follow the urban entrepreneurial agendas, even being “clearly different from what the local administration usually proposed.”13

  • 14 Idem.

49However, the impact of PB on systemic changes was significantly limited by a number of factors. First, its share in the municipal budget remained small, amounting to 2.32% in 2001, 4.47% in 2002 and 4.2% in 2003 (Ayuntamiento de Córdoba, 2007). Second, PB was not effective enough in terms of implementation of selected projects. For many of them had not been realised in time, “PB could not actually be seen as composed of yearly rounds,”14 leading to frustration and confusion among participants: citizens, Al-Zahara members, and politicians alike. Third, despite the initial enthusiasm, the local administration never approached PB as a priority project, and skepticism among political actors grew as they realised the re-configuration of political power that PB embodied. Thus, PB was increasingly considered as an inconclusive initiative that posed organisational problems and generated a lot of frustration, rather than proposed structural solutions.

50Consequently, despite city-dwellers actively defending PB in numerous unofficial publications as well as formal petitions, lack of political support from both the local government and Al-Zahara led to the suspension of PB for a year in 2004. Resumed in 2005 for two more years, its mechanism was this time much less transformative, giving key roles and responsibilities to usual political actors at the expense of direct citizen participation. Since the 2007 elections won by PB-skeptical right-wing, the return of PB is unlikely.

4. Participatory budgeting in Sopot, Poland

4.1. Context: “a technology that Sopot, like a company, has to invest in”

  • 15  As of March 2014.

51PB emerged in Sopot in 2011. Three PB rounds have been completed thus far (in 2011, 2012 and 2013), while the rules of the fourth one are currently being formulated15.

52 The context in which PB emerged in Sopot effectively prevents it from becoming a transformative project. First, unlike in Cordoba, it cannot relate to any prior or existing participatory traditions and experiences. Characteristically of Eastern Europe, interest in civic activity is much lower in Poland than in Spain, and the position of the so-called “Third Sector” vis-à-vis the local urban regime is significantly weaker.

53Second, as the aims of the main actors involved in the process of establishing PB – the mayor, the city councillors, and an informal citizen group called Sopot Developmental Initiative (SIR – Sopocka Inicjatywa Rozwojowa) who first proposed to implement PB – are far from converging, the project cannot benefit from a reconciliation of “top-down” and “bottom-up” actors. On the one hand, SIR’s objectives appear genuinely transformative. SIR perceives PB as way of reaching out to city-dwellers, empowering them in public deliberation about urban development, and thus providing them with significant decision-making power (Gerwin & Grabkowska, 2012). On the other hand, city councillors supportive of PB – mainly from Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) and I Love Sopot (Kocham Sopot – KS) parties – have representative aims. While claiming to engage in PB to help build relations among city-dwellers and promote profound participation, their primary focus is on providing voice for as many citizens as possible, while the quality of the discourse in which they are to participate becomes a secondary issue.

  • 16  Interview with a Town Hall representative.
  • 17 Idem.

54Finally, Sopot’s mayor and the councillors sceptical of PB – representing Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO) and Self-Governance (Samorządność) parties – appear to have purely nominal objectives. In their view, PB is to centre on raising civic awareness and providing information, and is therefore to sustain existing power relations and co-opt city-dwellers by proving them that “nothing is for free”16 in the debate over urban development. Crucially, in line with the Town Hall’s entrepreneurial orientation, participation is approached here not as a right in itself, but a means of increasing overall effectiveness of urban policy making. PB is therefore seen as “a technology that Sopot, like a company, has to invest in”17, and is expected to focus less on qualitative aims than on quantitative ones (i.e. high numbers of participants and proposals).

  • 18  In the Polish municipalities the mayor is significantly more powerful than the City Council, e.g. (...)

55Thus, PB has developed in Sopot without any political will to implement it as a transformative practice, and without profound support of the mayor as the key actor in local politics18. Thus, SIR has been forced to defend the legitimacy and capability of PB to represent city-dwellers against actors whose aims are purely representative, if not nominal.

4.2. Process: “offering citizens a template” focused on “correct and obvious” priorities

  • 19  Interview with a Town Hall representative.

56The two PB rounds held thus far in Sopot have followed similar procedures (Figure 4), actually much simpler than Cordoba’s. Each PB round begins with an information campaign launched by the Town Hall upon the request of the Committee on PB. City-dwellers are hoped to learn about PB from public posters and information materials sent to every household in the city, including a form for submitting project proposals. This step is followed by meetings – held in each of Sopot’s four electoral districts – during which citizens briefly discuss their ideas about investment needs, and elaborate proposals. Once the proposals are gathered, the Committee divides the proposals into district-wide and city-wide ones and assesses their legal feasibility, financial cost, and accordance with existing urban development plans and regulations. In 2011, the Committee further pre-selected proposals according to their “relevance, “rationality” and “entrepreneurialism.”19 Thus, the voting ballots sent to all households in Sopot are designed by the local administration and include a list of proposals for the particular district (the number of which in 2011 varied from 9 to 16, depending on the district) and the whole city (22 on the 2011 ballot).

57The voting ballots are to be returned to polling stations located in the Town Hall and several municipal libraries. During the voting (for which a period of at least a week is designated) meetings in each of four districts are held to initiate a citizen debate on the proposals. Once collected by the Town Hall representatives, the ballots are passed on to the Committee, who determine the most popular district- and city-wide proposals. Their implementation is further monitored by the City Council, with no citizen involvement at this stage.

Figure 4. The timeline of PB in Sopot in 2011 and 2012

Timeline in the 2011 round

Timeline in the 2012 round

Timeline in the 2013 round

Stage in the PB mechanism



Resolution of the City Council officially launching the PB procedure

1 – 10 September

1 – 21 June

18–19 April

Meetings on the district level (in 4 electoral areas of Sopot) between local administration and the city-dwellers

1 September

– 14 October

1 June

– 15 August

15 April – 12 May

Submission of proposals (at special meetings with the local administrations or via e-mail)

until the end

of October

16–31 August

13–26 May

Verification of proposals by the local administration

Stage absent in the 2011 round

1–31 September

27 May – 9 June

Information campaign (meetings with citizens, internet announcements) concerning proposals placed on the voting ballot as well as the voting procedure

2–7 November

1 – 14 October

10 – 23 June

Public vote over proposals

Until 15 November

Proposals from PB are included in the official draft of the municipal budget presented in front of the City Council by the mayor

Source: authors’ elaboration

  • 20  Interview with a SIR representative.
  • 21  In 2011, 7,59% of eligible voters cast 2410 valid ballots. In 2012, this figure fell to 4,76 % (15 (...)

58SIR calls the mechanism of PB in Sopot a “hopeless,” “rotten compromise.”20 Indeed, numerous of its aspects prevent it from enabling citizens to appropriate and produce urban space. To begin with, unlike in Cordoba, PB in Sopot is not inclusive, as the local administration prioritises reaching out to a high numbers of voters rather than to a variety of participants. Although a fair number of citizens partake in the final vote, citizen meetings rarely attract more than a dozen participants21. While local politicians identify the lack of participatory traditions as the main reason behind so low an attendance, SIR has criticised the small number of polling stations (2 in each district) and the limitations of the information strategy, which instead of relying on mass media, internet or direct mail, uses inexpensive mass mailing, probably causing city-dwellers to mistake PB-related leaflets for another advertisement. Consequently, PB in Sopot does not appear to reach the wide social spectrum of the city. Although the socio-economic profile of participants cannot be precisely established as no data concerning meetings attendees and — for obvious reasons — voters can been collected, nearly all interviewees have pointed out that too few young people were involved in the process, and local deprived groups were not represented at all.

  • 22  Interview with an I Love Sopot councilor.

59Sopot’s PB is further devoid of profound deliberative qualities. As most interviewees have reported, the methodology applied at PB meetings was of very poor quality: discussions are exclusively moderated by a mayor’s representative and no room is made for interaction between participants and members of local administration, let alone building relations among citizens. Neither do these meetings provide space for productive conflict, since existing tensions between SIR, the councillors and the Town Hall are expressed within the formal environment of the Committee on PB, in the absence of any other inhabitants. The Committee members justify this lack of deliberation by the necessity to create a PB procedure that is not “too demanding for participants.”22 Simplifying the process is thus preferred over creating a project that would empower participants through a genuine and attractive learning experience, and engage them using elements of both representative and direct democracy. The level of interaction within PB in Sopot can therefore be hardly compared to that in Cordoba.

  • 23  Interview with a Town Hall representative.

60As PB fails to address the issue of unequal capacities of city-dwellers and provide them with essential knowledge regarding urban development, local administration does not consider them as equal partners in the urban decision-making process, capable of grasping the technical and legal context of the procedure, or co-supervising it. As the Town Hall’s representative claims, “we can’t have a situation in which a student, nurse, vegetable vendor, dentist and academic teacher plan our roads and streets […] – we have professionals hired to do this.”23 As a result, PB has very little to offer to the few citizens embraced by it, and clearly incorporates a division into “articulate” and “non-articulate” participants. There is no space for deliberation about general “rules of the game” behind each round of PB, subjects for discussion within it, or criteria for selection of proposals emerging from PB. No new political bodies, such as territorial and thematic boards, or a citywide PB council, have been created, and hence no alternative framework for deliberation has been established.

  • 24 Idem.
  • 25  Interview with an I Love Sopot councilor.

61Thus, the priorities behind PB practice in Sopot — judged by the Town Hall as “correct and obvious”24 — and the existing configurations of power that define them remain unquestioned. The process has been dominated by the mayor, who retains the right to dismiss investment proposals emerging from PB. Although they might nonetheless be included by the City Council in an amendment, their implementation relies primarily on the mayor’s good will, with whom “every year a separate agreement has to be made,”25 for instance regarding the fundamental issue of the amount of funds allocated to PB each year.

  • 26 Idem.

62Furthermore, although initiated by an informal citizen group (SIR), PB in Sopot has acquired a fully institutional character, placing formal actors at the centre of the debate. Despite SIR’s regular efforts to inspire a critical debate on the project, they do not seem powerful enough to prompt effective improvements in the methodology of PB, as local administrations’ top-down preference for “offering citizens a template and […] dragging them to the meetings”26 leaves no space for “bottom-up” activism.

63Finally, since all PB-related meetings take place at the district level, PB fails to acquire a holistic character in Sopot. Although, unlike in Cordoba, its thematic scope is not limited, it does not provide space for a citywide debate concerning the total sum of aspects concerning urban environment, including broad political agendas. Instead, it is far from achieving a multi-scalar dimension, as it remains focused on small-scale projects, divided into district- and city-wide ones according to unclear criteria.

4.3. Results: existing power relations sustained

64PB in Sopot appears to produce tangible results: between 2011 and 2013 the total of 14 citywide, and 61 district-wide proposals were selected in the public vote. As in Cordoba, the projects that have emerged from PB do not follow the urban entrepreneurial agendas, and have focused on what SIR identifies as issues “that have for years been neglected, since they are not too spectacular.” (Gazeta Wyborcza, 2012). For instance, instead of allocating funds to a € 10m modern art museum project, citizens have chosen to implement a waste management system (including the installation of public recycling bins), support the municipal animal shelter, and the redevelopment of green areas and district streets.

  • 27  As in the case of the voter turnout figures, the authors did not rely on official data concerning (...)

65Nonetheless, several indicators prove that PB in Sopot is clearly unable to effectively transform existing power relations. First, it constitutes a minimal fraction of the municipal budget (1,46% in 2011, 1,28% in 2012 and 1,79% in 201327). Second, as the implementation of proposals is not monitored by citizens, but the Committee on PB, the urban regime is not obliged to fully respect the outcome of PB. It is therefore visibly ineffective: the realisation of a number of projects is delayed, or has not at all begun (Gazeta Wyborcza, 2013), while several of them have been altered. Third, PB does not derive, entail or produce any kind of administrative reform. Nearly all councilors and Town Hall representatives interviewed admit that PB has not fostered any change in the way they operate; instead, it is increasingly perceived as an organisational burden.


66Against the background of a growing interest in “alternative” urban policy models, paired with an intensifying inter-urban circulation of these models, our paper has attempted to make two contributions.

67First, it has built a theoretically-informed yet operational framework for examining the actual “alternative” character of policy models carrying an “alternative” label. This framework turns to Lefebvre’s conceptualization of the right to the city as main conceptual reference, while devoting special attention to issues of citizen’s participation in decision-making procedures about urban policies. This effort has resulted in the identification of several key aspects that an urban policy or practice should incorporate to genuinely enable citizens to appropriate and produce urban space, to challenge existing configurations of power, to become concerned with the total sum of aspects regarding the urban environment, and to acquire an utopian character.

68Second, based on this framework, our paper has attempted to critically assess the “alternative” character of an existing policy experience much noticed in recent years by urban policy analysts, activists and practitioners alike, namely participatory budgeting (PB). This assessment has been first conducted through a critical review of the existing literature on PB, then through an empirical case-study approach in two different urban contexts – Cordoba in Spain, Sopot in Poland.

69Our findings suggest that while PB as a policy model has a potentially high capacity to constitute an alternative to urban entrepreneurialism, this capacity is crucially conditioned by a number of intricate aspects. Therefore, although it may travel intensively around the globe as a benchmark for “alternative” policy, or even constitute a “best alternative practice,” importing PB to a city does not automatically entail establishing practices at odds with the entrepreneurial mainstream. In Cordoba, the combination of strong-willed top-down, institutional actors and bottom-up citizen engagement allowed PB to build upon existing participatory traditions and genuinely transform the urban agendas – even if for a short period of time, and to a limited extent.

70The Sopot’s case demonstrates, however, that PB is not immune to urban entrepreneurial agendas. Here, the weak position of citizen groups vis-à-vis the established urban regime – only mildly supportive of PB – resulted in creating yet another “governance technology” first and foremost designed to increase the effectiveness of urban policy-making and to align policies to entrepreneurial lines. Hence, instead of “reinvigorating” the democratic debate (conceived as the expression of fundamental disagreements over the definition and objectives of public action) participatory mechanisms such as PB may play a significant role in establishing or consolidating “post-political” (Swyngedouw, 2009) or “post-democratic” (Crouch, 2004) regimes of urban governance. These regimes rely on seemingly “open”, “horizontal” and “inclusive” networks of actors bringing together state institutions (local, urban and regional authorities especially), market actors (companies, lobbies, chambers of commerce, etc.) and civil society (citizen movements, associations, NGOs, etc.). However, as pointed out by Swyngedouw (2007, p. 64), such “new arrangements of Governance-beyond-the-State are deeply consensual”, for their very existence is based on the precondition that the participating stakeholders agree on both the definition of problems put on political agendas (e.g. the “challenges” of urban sustainability, competitiveness, safety, quality of life, etc.) and the perimeter of possible solutions (usually framed by a series of “best practices”). As demonstrated by the case of PB in Sopot, the expression of disagreement or dissent (e.g. criticisms of the competitiveness, sustainability or neighbourhood revitalization mottos) and consequently the search for alternative practices and policies are not welcome by post-political “participatory” arrangements. Rather, they encourage “deliberative exchanges (directed) towards the construction of a ‘reasonable consensus’ amongst ‘reasonable people’ and the sidelining of groups presumably uneasy to ‘reason with’” (Pinson 2009, p. 380).

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Zárate, M. L. (2010) « Mexico City charter: The right to build the city we dream about », in: A. Sugranyes & C. Mathivet (eds.) Cities for all: proposals and experiences towards the right to the city, Santiago de Chile: Habitat International Coalition, HIC, 259–266, [@:]

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1  UN-HABITAT (2004) recognises PB as “an innovative urban management practice with excellent potential to promote principles of good urban governance [that] can yield many benefits to local government and civil society alike [as it] can improve transparency in municipal expenditure and stimulate citizen’s involvement in decision making, […] redirect municipal investment towards basic infrastructure for poorer neighbourhoods, [and] strengthen social networks.” (p. 12-13)

2  According to Sintomer et al. (2012, p. 4), depending on the definition of and criteria for PB, between as many as 795 and 1469 instances of PB could be distinguished worldwide in 2010. While the majority of them (between 511 and 920) had been implemented in Latin America or the Caribbean, numerous cases emerged also in Europe (between 174 and 296), Africa (between 66 and 110), and Asia (between 40 and 120).

3  For a municipal example see Charte montréalaise (2007) and the Mexico City charter (Zárate, 2010). For a case concerning the national or federal scale see The City Statue of Brazil (2010).

4  Emphasis added by authors.

5  All translations from French, Polish and Spanish references come from the authors of this text.

6  Emphasis added by authors.

7  Interview with a Town Hall representative.

8  Interview with a member of the board of Al-Zahara.

9  Interview with an IESA (Instituto de Estudios Sociales Avanzados – Institute for Advanced Social Studies) expert.

10  Interview with a member of the board of Al-Zahara.

11  In 2001 only infrastructural investments were debated, while in 2002 and 2003 PB involved four “areas”: Infrastructure, Education & Children, Citizen Participation (primarily concerned with the activity of Civic Centres), and Co-operation (addressing the needs of immigrant residents of Cordoba, or supporting local NGOs engaged in projects in the Third World countries).

12  Interview with a Town Hall expert.

13 Idem.

14 Idem.

15  As of March 2014.

16  Interview with a Town Hall representative.

17 Idem.

18  In the Polish municipalities the mayor is significantly more powerful than the City Council, e.g. being responsible for balancing the municipal budget.

19  Interview with a Town Hall representative.

20  Interview with a SIR representative.

21  In 2011, 7,59% of eligible voters cast 2410 valid ballots. In 2012, this figure fell to 4,76 % (1506 valid ballots cast), to rise in 2013 to 6,76 % (2119 valid ballots cast). Instead of relying on data provided by Sopot’s Town Hall, the authors have re-calculated the voter turnout figures by comparing population data provided by Central Statistical Office of Poland (GUS) with figures concerning the number of ballots cast provided by the local administration. Unsurprisingly, the new voter turnout figures are slightly lower than those officially provided by the Town Hall. Due to lack of access to relevant data, the 2013 turnout figure does not include minor voters (in the 2013 round 16- and 17-year-olds were eligible to vote), and is therefore approximately 0.5–1.5 % too high.

22  Interview with an I Love Sopot councilor.

23  Interview with a Town Hall representative.

24 Idem.

25  Interview with an I Love Sopot councilor.

26 Idem.

27  As in the case of the voter turnout figures, the authors did not rely on official data concerning the share of PB in Sopot’s budget provided by the Town Hall. Instead, the figures have been re-calculated in reference to documents provided by the Public Information Bulletin (BIP) concerning the annual municipal budget of Sopot set for each year by the City Council. Crucially, while the Town Hall claims that the 2011 round embraced 7m PLN (which amounts to approximately € 1,75m), SIR informs that in fact only 5m PLN (approximately € 1,25m) have been directed to PB in that year.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 3. Key structural elements of the PB mechanism in Cordoba in 2001–2003
Légende Source: authors’ elaboration
Fichier image/png, 383k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Wojciech Kębłowski et Mathieu Van Criekingen, « How “alternative” alternative urban policies really are? »Métropoles [En ligne], 15 | 2014, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2014, consulté le 23 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Wojciech Kębłowski

Ph. D. candidate
Université libre de Bruxelles, IGEAT & Vrije Universiteit Brussel, COSMOPOLIS

Mathieu Van Criekingen

Chargé de cours
Université Libre de Bruxelles, Laboratoire de Géographie Humaine

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