The Relational Nature of Urban Governance

Just days before I left the US in July 2017, there was a convening of Baltimore folks to discuss an international research project of 8 cities (including Baltimore) exploring how collaborative governance manifests in conditions of austerity–i.e. when a jurisdiction has declining revenues and must make hard decisions about make budget cuts (Davies et al 2017). One of the findings from the team’s presentation that I found particularly interesting was that, among those in Baltimore interviewed for the project, many found it hard to know who is in charge when so many entities are involved in shaping policy in the city.

“The city has a strong mayor system… who has more influence? Is it the City? Is it a giant institution like Hopkins that has tremendous resources? …. Is it the philanthropic community? …Who’s calling the shots?”

The answer for me is essentially all of the above. The problem is figuring out how to navigate this reality to actually produce policy outcomes. Part of the research on urban collaborative governance I will be conducting in Bangalore is, of course, also of interest (and applicable) to the Baltimore context. So while the actors identified in these blog posts are from a contemporary Indian city, I find the concepts and models will resonant with anyone working on urban issues around the world.

So what is governance? Healey (citation?) describes governance as “…not a homogeneous agent, but a morass of complex networks and arenas within which power dynamics are expressed and deployed.” While this is a very accurate description of how urban areas function from experience, this can seem like a debilitating way of thinking about governance (how does one make sense of a ‘morass’ after all!). How can we move policy priorities in such complex urban arenas, and who, if anyone, is in charge?

Pieterse (2008) offers a conceptual model of the “domains” of actors/entities who are engaged in urban governance. In urban areas, these domains are in a continuous state of interaction, and how they relate to each other helps explain which domain may be more powerful, and thereby determine a particular outcome, at a given time. I find this conceptual model helpful for two main reasons: 1) rather than simply categorizing any particular entity by their pubic or non-public status, in this model any entity can be (and often are) in multiple domains simultaneously and 2) the messiness of governance comes from the multiple permutations of interactions that can and do happen in urban areas. I can think of examples in Baltimore when the voice or “power” of each one of the domains moved a project or policy forward.

The 5 domains of political engagement, and the Bangalore examples that I will be engaging with, are listed below (I hope to have a bigger list over time–and possibly revise which domain I have them categorized in).

  1. Representative Politics: The first domain consists of the formal political system, which is not only the elected officials themselves, but also the political parties that might have helped put them into power. The electoral participants themselves are, therefore, also a part of this domain which includes business interests that rely on public investments and therefore seek to influence the actors in this domain. The representative politics can play an “enabling” function that sets the climate for the other domains to participate in urban governance. Examples in Bangalore include:
    • Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike is the administrative body for the Bangalore region
    • Bangalore Development Authority
      The Bangalore Development Authority is the planning and development Agency for the Bangalore Metropolitan Area.
  2. Neo-Corpororatist Stakeholder Forums: This domain refers to the formal, often regulatory forums that exist in cities to help strategize on the approach that urban policies form. This includes such forums as commissions, task forces and/or mandated participatory processes that bring together multi-sector stakeholders to set forth typically public or open strategic visions. Given mostly symmetrical levels of capacity across all actors, these forums can provide safe spaces for contestation and debate within urban areas. Examples in Bangalore include:
    • BBMP Restructuring
    • Bangalore Apartments Federation “formed in 2014 to represent and protect the interests of Apartments & Resident Welfare Associations across Bangalore”
  3. Direct Action/Social Movements: This domain includes the formal and informal collective action often by disadvantaged or social justice-minded groups focused on issues that shape the quality of life in urban areas. Direct action is meant to disturb the status quo and often presents itself through protesting, campaigning or some form of non-violent defiance, but have a clear philosophy or agenda that aims to address the issues raised by the impacted constituencies. “The challenge [for entities in the first two domains] is to foster a political culture that is embracing of social mobilization politics along with institutionally defined pressure-valves to absorb and channel the energy that is unleashed by direct action.” Examples in Bangalore include:
    • Citizens for Bengaluru “Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB) is a voluntary movement of, by, and for the people of Bengaluru.   The movement is focused on improving the quality of life, for all, in the city.”
    • Namma Bengaluru Foundation “an organization working towards making Bengaluru a model city, be it in terms of well planned infrastructure, well laid out neighborhood community models, or its people-driven governance measures”
  4. Grassroots/Community-Based Development Practice: This domain refers to the everyday practices and continuous operations of grassroots and other organizations that are involved in community/neighborhood issues. These practices interact most clearly with the other domains around development (physical and social) that occur in local areas. The most important aspect of the entities in this domain, which distinguishes it from social movements, is that they are involved in the actual implementation of urban policies which generally occurs over a medium- or long-term. Being engaged in how development unfolds builds the capacity of actors in this domain to really understand how the local democracy functions (transparency, accountability, inclusivity, etc); this experiential learning is at the root of democratic citizenship. Examples in Bangalore include:
  5. Discursive Politics/Media: Pieterse calls this domain the most “under-studied” among the five in the model. However, he raises this domain to the same level as the rest because we are surrounded by discourse everyday, and how we absorb the media or other expert knowledge shapes our and actors in the other domains views on larger systemic issues. He writes that “…[P]olitical potency of discourses can form the identity of the city and the policy imperatives that flow from it”

The ultimate question, of course, lies in whether this messy, multifaceted relational governance can be effective at aligning visions at multiple scales (metropolitan vs. local) towards common goals. Rosan (2016) offers some criteria about how to measure broad alignment (in her case how well do local areas in the US align with metropolitan goals) which I am adapting a bit to address Pieterse’s relational model:

  • localities will adopt regional plans [or visa versa in the case of strong regional authority–regional plans will incorporate local concerns]
  • the language used to talk about policy will match at different spatial levels [and across the political domains]
  • officials at different spatial levels will see the different scales as relevant to their work
  • elected officials and planners will attend meetings at different spatial levels [and across the political domains]
  • local communities [and stakeholders from the political domains] will work together to address common issues

The combination of Pieterse’s governance domains and Rosan’s effectiveness measures serve as the basis of the set of structured interview questions that I will ask the identified actors in Bangalore. Wish me luck!


Davies, J.S. et al (2017) ‘Collaborative Governance Under Austerity: An Eight-case comparative study’ Mongraph available at

Healey, P. (2002) ‘On Creating the ‘City’ as a Collective Resource’, Urban Studies, Vol. 39, No. 10: 1777-1792.

Pieterse, E. A. 2008. City futures: confronting the crisis of urban development. London: Zed Books. A prior working paper is available online at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies,%20Relational%20Urban%20Politics.pdf

Rosan , C. (2016) Governing the Fragmented Metropolis: Planning for Regional Sustainability. Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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