Jim Carroll

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Giving people a greater say in how their cities are run

What’s stopping ordinary citizens from playing a bigger role in how their cities operate?

Tue, Oct 18, 2016, 09:50


For most citizens, participation in how their cities are run is largely limited. Once every four or five years, they get to elect a new bunch of councillors or representatives and that’s largely it. Even at that, the turnout for local municipal elections is never as large as it is for general elections. While there might be an occasional opportunity to take part in a local initiative or volunteering project, these are rarely seen as something which have a huge impact in how their respective cities operate.

However, there are many who believe that this does not have to be the case at all and that citizens can and should have a say in what happens in the metropolitan areas they call home. It’s something which was the focus of the Habitat III conference currently taking place in Quito, Equador, where participants are discussing strategies for managing an urban future. Nearer home, a recent opinion poll showed that three-quarters of Dubliners are in favour of a directly elected mayor for the city, something which will in the spotlight at Dublin Inquirer’s upcoming Dublin Mayoral Debate at the Mansion House on November 2 (DOI: I’ll be moderating this discussion).

What’s interesting about the shift in perception which is happening around participation is that the emphasis is on the macro rather than micro. People are beginning to cop that those issues around education, housing and quality of life, the things which are of most concern of them as city inhabitants, are hugely influenced by who controls capital and power – and that this is something which they have an investment in.

As Philippa Nicole Barr points out, capital doesn’t always have to be economic. “In general, the people and groups proposing solutions to these problems have access to certain forms of capital – not just economic, but also cultural or social, political, intellectual and natural capital”, she writes. “Each of these offers a way to exercise power and access resources, using means such as education, social connections, political popularity and natural resources. Access to any of these forms of capital can be a way of influencing the urban agenda and contribute solutions to the problems of the city.”

It means that those who are involved in or have an interest in an issue can and should have a say rather than relying on those who currently make the decision for the many on behalf of the few. It could mean a better city for all and might – might – see innovative solutions to issues which currently bedevil cities.

For example, surely there’s a better solution to Dublin’s housing and rental crisis than just wringing hands and saying it can’t get any worse? But given how this issue is managed and influenced – and especially the vested interests who have a financial stake in ensuring things continue as they are – the ideas which could help to sort the problem are never considered or analysed with any sort of seriousness. (New ideas about dealing with a situation where the cost of renting a home in Ireland could increase by as much as 25 per cent over the next two years because of a shortage of supply will be on the agenda at Banter’s discussion on renting in Dublin at Wigwam on October 2).

While there are undoubtedly some who are happy enough with the way things are – and some again who can employ their own private capital to alleviate any urban problems they encounter – the majority who live in a city want a more pronounced say on how the city is run. They believe that the current disengagement is not a good thing, especially when you consider how some of our local reps act (or don’t act) in terms of city life. Many will agree with Barr when she concludes that “as cities grow, it’s crucial to consider intangible benefits such as beauty, community and safety, instead of having a narrow focus on short-term profit.”