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Urban settlements globally and in New Zealand will experience significant and increasingly unpredictable change over the next decades due to the combined impacts of forces such as climate change, significant demographic shifts, and global resource depletion including oil and food.

Local and central government need approaches to enable them to evaluate and address the impacts of large scale change on urban settlements.

This research investigates why some cities and communities are better able to adapt to disruptive events and persistent change than others. By identifying the characteristics of adaptive and resilient settlements, and actions that cities and communities can take will increase their ability to adapt to future change.

People Power: Innovations in urban governance

Increasingly, community engagement is regarded as critical to urban environmental planning processes. Although many urban residents question whether their attempts to influence policy are in vain, people continue to work collectively through voluntary associations and networks to have a voice in urban policy.

This research investigates instances when urban voluntary associations have successfully mobilised to influence strategic planning and implementation. Can this influence be discounted as capture by elite interest groups or a shift in responsibility for policy planning and delivery but not in power? How have they exerted influence and what are the implications of this for democratic process?

Governance structures are specific culturally defined ways of organising decision-making and implementation processes. As an anthropologist, the researcher is using ethnographic research to explore voluntary associations’ experiences and practices of public participation, using ‘thick description’ to explore the micro politics that emerge in this context. Who are these people involved in collective mobilisation, why and how have they mobilised, and how do they identify themselves - as individuals, as representatives, as a collective? What forms of knowledge, networks, discourses and practices are deployed by these groupings to exert influence, to what effect? How are some claims, groups and individuals privileged over to others? The aim is not to determine the ‘right’ way to engage with communities. Rather, people’s perspectives and experiences are examined to explore how boundaries between the state and society are imagined and reproduced in everyday participatory processes and to identify creative forms of local democracy.

A fundamental democratic principle is that everyone whose interests are affected by public policies should be included in the process of making them. A renewed emphasis on involving citizens in policy development has emerged in the last decade in attempt to address a perceived ‘democratic deficit’. In urban environmental policy development, community engagement has become an imperative under the Local Government Act 2002. The LGA prioritises the ‘local’ as the site for effective policy and promotes local, multi-sectoral partnerships between central government, local institutions and community organisations. This is intended to create innovative collaborations at a local scale as an alternative to top-down models of governance.

Despite the potential of participatory governance forms anticipated by policy makers, academic critics are much more sceptical. Governmentality theorists have provided consistent critique of the neoliberal shift ‘from government to governance’ as evidence of the withdrawal of the state and shifting of costs and responsibilities from government to more localised agencies, voluntary associations and citizens. Public participation in urban environmental planning is therefore understood as less about transformation of democratic process through devolution of decision making authority and resources, and more an attempt to gain political legitimacy for central government agendas. There is a growing body of literature to suggest individuals and voluntary associations have very limited power to influence policy and implementation processes.

Much less analysis has occurred on public participation from the perspectives of the participants themselves, particularly in a New Zealand context. This research investigates the ‘elbowed spaces’ of public participation, particularly when, against all odds, voluntary associations and networks have exerted influence in ways that promote democratic inclusion and equity .

Using ethnographic research, including participant observation, case studies, interviews, focus groups, document and media reviews, and network mapping we investigated elbowed spaces. Ethnographic research typically reveals contradictions and paradoxes rather than eliminating uncertainty and ambiguity. Ethnography (literally, writing about folk) explores webs of relationships, local meanings, circulating discourses, multiple contestations and changing forms of power. In this way, the research creates a more nuanced understanding of the role of voluntary association and networks in urban environmental policy development and delivery, and unpack taken-for-granted cultural values, meanings and practices related to public participation. In this way, the research examines the negotiated space between citizens and the state through public participation, to renewal changing relationships between them and to analyse the nature of the state. Critically, such analysis can also identify creative forms of governance under participatory democracies, enabling a broadening of the space of legitimate contestation.

Research to date suggests that at times, voluntary associations and networks attempt to influence policy design and implementation in ways that were not anticipated by government agencies. While some groups participants perceive the ‘invited spaces’ of public participation to have limited capacity to achieve social justice, the ‘elbowed space’ created by some groups enabled critical structural changes and subsequently more equitable and inclusive governance structures.


Scott KM, Park JK, Carnahan M 2011. Elbowed spaces of governance. Proceedings: 110th American Anthropological Association annual meeting: "Traces, Tidemarks and Legacies", Montréal, Quebec, Canada, 16-20 November 2011.

Scott K 2011. The main thing I like here is you feel secure: exploring state tenants’ experiences of medium density housing. In: Witten K, Abrahamse W, Stuart K ed. Growth misconduct? Avoiding sprawl and improving urban intensification in New Zealand. Wellington, Steele Roberts Aotearoa. Pp. 65-77.

Urban Transformations Framework

This research develops a conceptual framework identifying enablers of and barriers to urban settlements adapting to global change and reducing their vulnerability to resource scarcity.

The framework focuses primarily on the human capacity of urban transformations (individual, community and institutional) and draws together different disciplinary understandings of resilience along with socio-technical transitions theory.

The research explores;

  • What policy concepts & approaches are effective when there is a high degree of uncertainty and complexity over issues such as climate change and peak oil? Specifically does the concept of resilience provide a practical urban policy approach into dealing with uncertain future change?
  • What concepts are useful to understand urban technological transitions? Specifically does the concept of socio-technological transitions provide insights into the challenges of mainstreaming alternative urban technologies to address global change issues?
  • What organisational attributes and policy processes are required within policy agencies to encourage urban resilience and urban transitions?


Mortimer C 2011. Adaptive cities : the cpacity for policy innovation in response to global change. Unpublished Masters thesis, University of Auckland, Auckland. 109 p.

Adams M, Mortimer C 2010. [Abstract] Resilience thinking in urban settlements. Proceedings: New Zealand Geographical Society Conference 2010 with the IAG Christchurch, New Zealand, 5-8 July 2010.