How ‘alternative’ alternative urban policies really are? Looking at participatory budgeting through the lenses of the right to the city

Wojciech Keblowski, Mathieu Van Criekingen

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The paper proposes to focus on a specific instance of 'alternative' urban policy: participatory budgeting (PB). A policy initiative originally developed in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in the 1990s, PB enables city-dwellers to co-decide about the allocation of (part of) the city's financial resources. Its model is at present embraced by nearly 1,500 municipalities in 6 continents, for PB is widely regarded as a policy benchmark being considered as "one of the most successful participatory instruments of the past 15 years" (Sintomer et al. 2008). It has been applied as a mechanism capable of reaching out to city-dwellers, addressing the crisis of representative democracy at the city scale, or enhancing legitimacy of urban administrations and political leaders.

However, thus far there has been very few attempts at building frameworks to systematically assess the actual character of existing practices derived from alleged 'alternative' urban policy models in different urban contexts - including diverse contingent practices based on the PB model. Building such an analytical framework constitutes the first aim of the paper. To do so, we start from Henri Lefebvre's (1968) conceptualisation of the "right to the city" and recent re-interpretations of this notion as a driver for providing a radical alternative to the mainstream urban entrepreneurial policy repertoire. We look first at a conceptual/theoretical level: how far does the model of PB actually matches the notion of the right to the city? Here, the PB model is confronted with the core ingredients of the right to the city extracted from Lefebvre's founding text and its subsequent re-interpretations, as well as with elements put forward in the critical literature on citizens' participation in urban planning.

The second aim of the paper is to apply the analytical framework in an analysis of existing practices related to the very recent and rapid development of PB in Poland, where it has engaged ca. 70 cities. Particular attention is paid to the case of Sopot, where a entrepreneurially-oriented administration implemented PB as an efficiency-building tool that helps co-opt city-dwellers in local urban governance. We examine the origins and circumstances of the implementation of a PB in Sopot, its actual content as well as the motivations of the diverse actors and networks involved. Our aim here is to verify what kind of "alternative" practice has travelled to Poland under the PB label and what kind of spaces for urban (co-)governance it has created.

We conclude that while PB as a policy model has a potentially high capacity to constitute an alternative to urban entrepreneurialism, this capacity is conditioned by a number of intricate aspects. Although the PB model travels intensively around the globe as an innovative policy benchmark, the actual practices of PB may follow aims and produce results that are in fact to a large extent in tune with urban entrepreneurialism. Potentially or alleged 'alternative' urban policy models may thus be followed by practices actually devoid of alternative components.
Originele taal-2English
Aantal pagina's23
TijdschriftMétropoles
Volume2014
Nummer van het tijdschrift15
StatusPublished - dec 2014

Bibliografische nota

Vincent Beal, Max Rousseau

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