Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

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?

What we are aiming to do

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 .

What we will investigate and how

This research investigates locally-situated (Tamaki) voluntary association that has sought to model innovative ways of working to influence urban renewal processes. This creative form of local democracy will be examined in relation to notions of citizenship, democratic inclusion and equity.

Ethnographic research is the approach adopted, including participant observation, case studies, interviews, focus groups, document and media reviews, and network mapping. 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 will create 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.

Expected outcomes and achievements

This research project is taking place between June 2009 - December 2012, with the final output being a PhD thesis, a book chapter (in preparation) and journal articles.

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.

Research collaborations

This research is part of a broader doctoral research project entitled ‘The role of voluntary associations in policy formulation and implementation within contemporary democracies’, in the Department of Anthropology, The University of Auckland, supervised by Associate Professor Julie Park, Professor Cris Shore and Professor Veronica Strang.


  • 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.
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