Leading the Inclusive City

In his book Robin Hambleton argues that imaginative place-based leadership can enable citizens to shape the urban future. David Towell finds it an inspiring read.

Author: Robin Hambleton

Reviewed by: David Towell

My main contribution to the work of the Centre for Welfare Reform is the Sustainability and Social Justice Project which I lead with Jo Kidd and John O'Brien. Our aim in this project is to encourage, share and learn from examples around the world of how people are finding ways of living in harmony with our planet (i.e. sustainably) and with each other (i.e. so as to achieve social justice). 

My most recent pamphlet, inspired in part by current work in Colombia, addresses these questions at the level of the municipality. Both the English version, Building A Better Future Through Civic Partnership and its Spanish equivalent, with the more snappy title Ciudades Para Todos (Cities For All), are available in the Centre's online Library. The pamphlet has 16 pages. This latest blockbuster of a book from Robin Hambleton - running to 400 pages of inspiring examples and scholarly reflection - provides a comprehensive and excellent textbook for this endeavour at the level of the city.

I say 'textbook' but 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 resource 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. 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 means 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 a short review of a book on this scale cannot do justice to the richness of experience and analysis it 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.

The book is available to purchase here.

The publisher is Policy Press.

Leading the Inclusive City © Robin Hambleton 2014.

Review: Leading the Inclusive City © David Towell 2015.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Review | 16.06.15

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