The Rebirth of Urban Democracy

The Rebirth of Urban Democracy

The Rebirth of Urban Democracy

The Rebirth of Urban Democracy

Synopsis

In an era when government seems remote and difficult to approach, participatory democracy may seem a hopelessly romantic notion. Yet nothing is more crucial to the future of American democracy than to develop some way of spurring greater citizen participation. In this important book, Jeffrey Berry, Ken Portney, and Ken Thompson examine cities that have created systems of neighborhood government and incorporated citizens in public policymaking. Through careful research and analysis, the authors find that neighborhood based participation is the key to revitalizing American democracy. The Rebirth of Urban Democracy provides a thorough examination of five cities with strong citizen participation programs--Birmingham, Dayton, Portland, St. Paul, and San Antonio. In each city, the authors explore whether neighborhood associations encourage more people to participate; whether these associations are able to promote policy responsiveness on the art of local governments; and whether participation in these associations increases the capacity of people to take part in government. Finally, the authors outline the steps that can be taken to increase political participation in urban America. Berry, Portney, and Thomson show that citizens in participatory programs are able to get their issues on the public agenda and develop a stronger sense of community, greater trust in government officials, and more confidence in the political system. From a rigorous evaluation of surveys and interviews with thousands of citizens and policymakers, the authors also find that central governments in these cities are highly responsive to their neighborhoods and that less conflict exists among citizens and policymakers. The authors assert that these programs can provide a blueprint for major reform in cities across the country. They outline the components for successful participation programs and offer recommendations for those who want to get involved. They demonstrate that participation systems can influence citizens to become more knowledgeable, more productive, and more confident in government; and can provide more governments with a mechanism for being more responsive in setting priorities and formulating polices that closely approximate the true preferences of the people.

Excerpt

In 1985 we embarked with great expectations on our research for this book. The optimist in each of us hoped that we would discover exemplars of citizen participation in practice--those that did well to achieve the most highly valued goals of democracy--that could be transferred to other places. The realist in each of us understood that in contemporary America there may not be examples of participation that achieve the theoretical goals of democracy and that the conditions necessary to develop, support, and sustain citywide systems of public participation may not be easily transferred. And the scholar in each of us recognized that the research project needed to investigate the consequences of well-developed citizen participation would be extremely challenging.

With the gracious and generous support of the Ford Foundation, we were able to marshal the forces of social science research to the task of trying to understand what happens when cities' neighborhoods become part of citywide systems of public participation. We asked hard research questions, and we report their answers here. The answers are not always straightforward, and they ultimately raise many more questions still needing to be addressed.

Although we may not have found models of participation that can easily be transferred, we did find programs whose features can inform the design and practice of citizen participation elsewhere. We believe this book provides some important corrections to current skepticism about citizen participation in the United States. It suggests that these concerns, raised mostly in empirical analyses about democratic participation, are overstated. And it suggests that the expectations for practical democracy that grow out of normative theory are too high. Nevertheless, face-to-face forms of political participation can achieve much of what theorists suggest is worthwhile and can do so without producing significant negative consequences.

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