How “alternative” are alternative urban policies?


In 2012 Wojciech Keblowski graduated from 4CITIES with his thesis “Participatory budgeting and the right to the city”, supervised by Prof. Mathieu van Criekingen from ULB. After graduating he started doing research and now he is a PhD researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Cosmopolis) and the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Igéat).

Apart from his PHD project on “Mobility of alternative transport policies: multi-site lessons for Brussels” he continues to work on the topic of his master thesis in 4CITIES. The aim of the project is to critically analyse the mobility of participatory budgeting (PB), a practice empowering (urban) citizens to co-decide about allocation of (part) of municipal resources. Building on Henri Lefebvre’s “right to the city” as well as critical literature on citizen participation in urban planning and politics, the project assesses the allegedly alternative and transformative character of practices carrying the PB label that over the last few years have been implemented in over 100 municipalities in Eastern Europe, notably in Poland.

In recent years, participatory budgeting has been often regarded as an example of an alternative urban policy experience, detached from the entrepreneurial mainstream. Despite its increasing popularity amongst urban policy analysts, activists and practitioners, however, few works have effectively assessed the actual “alternative” character of policy practices carrying the participatory budgeting label in different urban contexts.

This paper engages in such a critical assessment. We first build an analytical framework theoretically informed by Lefebvre’s conceptualisation of the “right to the city” as well as by elements put forward in the critical literature on citizens’ participation in urban policy-making. We then apply this framework to examine participatory budgeting practices in two different urban contexts, namely Cordoba in Southern Spain and Sopot in Northern Poland.

Our findings suggest that the capacity of participatory budgeting to constitute an alternative to urban entrepreneurialism is conditioned by a number of intricate aspects. Although the model travels intensively around the globe as a benchmark for “alternative” policy, the actual practices of participatory budgeting may follow aims and produce results that are in fact to a large extent in tune with urban entrepreneurialism.

Wojciech Keblowski and Mathieu Van Criekingen published an article in Métropoles 15/2014 together that can be accessed online: How “alternative” alternative urban policies really are?