A focus on positive change through civic leadership

I was still reflecting on how best to build on the previous posting in this Raising Our Game series of blogs – focusing that is how we can best develop constructive responses to current political, economic and social challenges in a spirit of hope – when I came across an excellent new book by Robin Hambleton (Policy Press 2015):
LEADING THE INCLUSIVE CITY: Place-based innovation for a bounded planet
Strongly analytical but also deeply practical, this book is a great resource to raising our game at the level of the town and city i.e. through bold civic leadership. Let me try to summarise some of the main arguments and most inspirational examples.
Hambleton is at pains to emphasise, first, that although this is an academic text (there are 30 pages of references to leading work in this field or rather, many relevant fields), it is also an example of engaged scholarship: Robin has been working and learning with city leaders around the world since we first met as colleagues at the University of Bristol’s School for Advanced Urban Studies nearly 40 years ago. Second, this is not a book supplying ‘answers’, still less ‘best practices’: rather the ideas and examples are offered as a guide to civic leaders in their search for innovative ways of meeting contemporary challenges in their own cities. By civic leaders here he certainly means elected politicians, but also those playing managerial and professional roles, community activists and people in local business and trade union organisations, with an interest in urban development at different levels from the grass roots upwards.
His aim then is to stimulate practical efforts to improve the quality of life in cities in the face of global trends towards rapid urbanisation, greater inequality, increasing diversity and environmental degradation.
But this is not a pessimistic analysis. On the contrary the book offers a grounded vision of a better future and an optimistic account of the role of civic leadership in achieving positive change. One highlight of the book is the inclusion of 17 of what Hambleton calls ‘Innovation Stories’, case studies of illuminating developments in a wide variety of cities around the world, including Ahmedabad in India, Chicago in the USA, Freiburg in Germany, Hamamatsu in Japan and Melbourne in Australia.
Hambleton’s main themes are all captured in the extended title for this book. He sees place-based and therefore democratic leadership as an essential counter-weight to the place-less power of corporate and unaccountable elites in a globalised world, pursuing short-term profit with little regard to its human and environmental consequences. (He stresses Michael Sandel’s argument that markets need to serve society and not the other way round.)
He suggests that progressive civic leadership should be concerned with building sustainable and inclusive cities, not one or the other. By sustainable here he means living within environmental limits and valuing our relationship with the rest of nature. (‘Nature needs a distinct seat at the urban governance tables if cities are to be ecologically resilient.’) By inclusive, he means enabling everyone to participate fully in the life of the city in a spirit of equal political, economic and social citizenship. (A whole chapter is devoted to ways of making increasing diversity – arising for example from urban migration – an advantage. Here the most impressive story is from Toronto, a rapidly growing city where more than half the population have been born elsewhere.)
Hambleton is currently the Professor of City Leadership at the University of the West of England. Naturally the nature of this progressive leadership is key to his argument and this receives extended discussion. He identifies what he calls the New Civic Leadership as involving ‘strong place-based leadership acting to co-create new solutions to public problems by drawing on the complementary strengths of civil society, the market and the state’. Typically this involves creating new spaces for people with different interests and perspectives to come together to develop a compelling vision of a sustainable and inclusive future and engage in a process of social discovery which tests better ways of doing things towards this goal.
More concretely this involves efforts to both strengthen democratic urban governance and promote public service innovation. The Innovation Stories offer more detail. In relation to the former, for example, the carefully considered reform of institutional structures in Auckland, New Zealand, created a unitary structure for governance capable of both developing and delivering a long term plan for the city. Nearer home, in Bristol, public support for an elected mayor has given the first incumbent in this role the opportunity to offer visible leadership for the city, not just the council. And in Sweden, a wide coalition of civic leaders in Malmo are transforming a declining industrial town into a modern ‘eco-city’, partly through strong decentralisation of services to the neighbourhood level and a focus on environmental sustainability.
In relation to the latter, service innovation, Guangzhou in China is one of a growing number of the world’s megacities which has invested in a Bus Rapid Transit system coupled with extensive bike use to provide cheap and sustainable public transport. Langrug, an informal settlement near Stellenbosch in South Africa, has employed a community development approach to both empowering local people and improving living conditions. And Copenhagen in Denmark is just one well-known European city which has changed the culture of city life, making it more ‘people friendly’, by recovering public space from motor vehicles to make it available to pedestrians, cyclists and street activities, while also ‘greening’ the environment.
Clearly this short summary cannot do justice to the richness of experience and analysis Leading The Inclusive City contains. There are many more lessons and inspirations here for civic leaders everywhere prepared to combine considered judgement with bold action to make a positive difference in our towns and cities and thus advance a better life for all.