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The wave of participation: bottom-up and top-down

Posted on 28-07-2022

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Last month I had the chance to participate at the conference 'Nature for inclusive Urban Regeneration' organised by URBINAT in Milan. I was very pleased to present my working paper ‘Commoning (in) the Neighbourhood, Righting the City’ and discuss a definition of the Right to the City (R2C) through commoning and the role of the state in this discourse, looking at the case of Lisbon.

 

The first formulation of R2C dates back to 1960’s Henry Lefebvre (1996), but since then it has been a highly discussed topic and one of the main ideas reclaimed by emancipatory practices and practitioners, including the urban commoners. So, while the definition of the R2C through bottom-up commoning activities in the neighbourhoods clearly entails representations of collective struggles of communities to reclaim the urban value (Borch & Kornberger, 2015), there is a debate among theorists on the role of the state in these negotiations. In other words, the question that emerges is: Can the R2C and commoning be seen in terms of existing state and market principals? Possibly oversimplifying Huron’s (2018) analysis of two antithetical positions by anticapitalists on the one hand and institutionalists on the other, the response would be ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively.

 

Yet, exploring what lies between binary responses, I would argue, can also reveal radical alternatives. This consideration arose in my research explorations already since our RE-DWELL very first training activity back in September 2021, namely the Lisbon Workshop. There, during a highly engaging open discussion on participatory processes among Early-Stage Researchers, supervisors and representatives from our non-academic partners, Miguel Brito from the Municipality of Lisbon illustrated the notions of bottom-up and top-down initiated participatory processes as a wave.

I spent days reflecting on the strength of this expressive image. What does it offer to conceptualise top-down and bottom-up initiated participation, or in extrapolation other emancipatory practices, such as commoning and the R2C, as a wave and what does this meeting serve?

 

The urgency for this encounter relates to the transformation of knowledge from static, siloed and self-referential that contributes to the preservation of the existing power structures, to dynamic flow between grassroots informal urbanisation and top-down formal urbanisation that can produce new strategies in research and practice. In this way, as Melanie Dodd (2019) explains, in one direction we must consider the ways in which urban activism can transform institutional structures and produce new kinds of institutions; on the other direction, ways that institutional resources can reach disadvantaged sites and transform unhealthy norms ingraining creative intelligence in informal dynamics.

 

Arguably, these knowledge flows need to be curated until the two notions reach a balance, in which communities remain committed to practicing their R2C and formal urban planning allows for real synergies and transformations to emerge. Until then, a great challenge remains. How to facilitate such dialogues without abandoning one’s radical values or serving unintentionally co-optation agendas?

 

 

References

 

Borch, C., & Kornberger, M. (2015). Urban commons: Rethinking the city. Routledge. 

 

Dodd, M. (2019). Spatial practices: Modes of action and engagement with the city. Taylor & Francis.

 

Huron, A. (2018). Carving Out the Commons: Tenant Organizing and Housing Cooperatives in Washington, D.C. 1 edn. Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press.

 

Lefebvre, H. (1996). The Right to the City. In E. Lebas, Elizabeth, Kofman (Ed.), Writings on Cities (Vol. 53, Issue 2, p. 260). Mass, USA Blackwell Publishers.

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