Democracy and Cities I

After the Arab Spring, Occupy and the Umbrella Movement the streets were cleared. But as the dust was settling some more durable democratic experiments emerged. These urban alliances sought to make our cities more equitable places to live.

In this two-part episode on democracy and cities we’re talking about a new type of political movement that is forming in different cities around the world; its called an urban alliance. In this first episode, Associate Professor Kurt Iveson sets up the discussion by telling us why cities are important for democracy.

“There’s a basic demographic thing about, you know, the majority of the world’s population now living in cities… that’s really important, in the sense of, the particular problems of everyday life in cities are now being experienced by millions of people around the planet… questions of water, food, housing, transport…”

Associate Professor Kurt Iveson

It’s not only that there are different ways to practise democracy in our cities, but the very fabric of our cities and even the ecologies of our cities can shape how the new urban alliances operate. In other words, the geographies and socialities of the city matter for how democracy is practised.

The story we tell ourselves about democracy is often focused on nation-states and citizenships. But for Kurt, urban alliances and sustained community organising in cities are just as important for democracy as nations. Questions about cities frequently focus on who counts as a democratic subject and how to participate in various political, interest or geographical communities. These types of questions are being creatively re-imagined in cities around the world, and one of these re-imaginings is called an urban alliance.

“At the very basic level, what we’re trying to signal by this term of urban alliance is a kind of political formation that is not just about a particular issue, and is also not just based on a particular identity, but is an alliance that operates – the thing that binds people together is their shared inhabitance of a city”.

Associate Professor Kurt Iveson

If you like this discussion you can listen to the second part of this two-part episode about democracy and cities via City Road. In part two, we start with Kurt’s suggestion that urban alliances are not just flash-in-the-pan protests on the latest political bugbear, rather they are a new form of democratic practise. We pick up where Kurt left off with Kurt’s collaborator, Dr Amanda Tattersall, who is an urban activist and researcher. Amanda talks about her fieldwork uncovering new urban alliances in Cape Town and Barcelona.


Associate Professor Kurt Iveson is interested in the question of how social justice can be achieved in cities. In this episode, Kurt discusses his current study with collaborator Dr Amanda Tattersall: Organising the 21st Century City: An International Comparison of Urban Alliances as Citizen Engagement. The study is funded by the Henry Hallroan Trust.

This study builds on Kurt’s previous research, which has focused on two main areas. First, he has examined the significance of the urban public realm for citizenship and democracy. Second, he has explored how urban planning might work better to achieve social justice in cities. Kurt is the author of Publics and the City

The Democratic Experiment Series

This episode is a part of a series called The Democratic Experiment. This series is a partnership between City Road and The Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. The Sydney Policy Lab exists to break down the barriers between researchers, policymakers, campaigners and the community at large. At the Sydney Policy Lab people of all backgrounds are coming together to strengthen our democracy, reduce spiralling inequality and help to empower communities to shape their own future.

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