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Reclaiming the “Right to the City” Through Participatory Budgeting

Participatory budgeting is growing in many cities around the world. Can it become a tool for urban dwellers to reclaim power over their living conditions and the running of their city ?
Reviewed: Yves Cabannes (ed.), Another City is Possible with Participatory Budgeting, 2017, Montreal, Black Rose Books

The crisis of legitimacy and the turn to the city

Facing the neoliberal retrenchment of the state that has been exasperated by the financial and economic troubles of the past 10 years, our representative democracies have been increasingly subject to a profound crisis of legitimacy. This, in turn, has led to the rise of right-wing populist governments at the national level. In light of this troubling situation, the territorial unit of the city has gained increased salience as an essential site in the fight for democracy and social justice. Responding to this crisis with concrete possibilities of collective action at the municipal level, Another City is Possible with Participatory Budgeting (2017), organized by Yves Cabannes, is an ambitious anthology of recent experiences with participatory budgeting (PB). Rather than focusing on the paradigmatic case of Porto Alegre, Brazil (which has been extensively documented in numerous books and articles), or attempting an exhaustive survey of the more than 3,000 cases of PB worldwide, Cabannes brings together 13 distinct experiences of PB from across the planet. These cases have each developed innovative institutional forms and provide the potential of linking up to other emancipatory projects geared towards building “another possible city” (p. 18).

Figure 1. Location of participatory-budgeting processes presented in the book

Source : Cabannes 2017.

This book offers an account of participatory budgeting that is eminently accessible to somebody who knows nothing of the practice. But it also presents incisive analysis of some of the most innovative forms of PB, providing the seasoned PB scholar, activist, or policymaker with valuable new insights that will enable them to better navigate the social and political particularities of their own unique context. Moreover, the appendices at the end of the book include an annotated bibliography of essential reading for PB studies, a selection of 30 films that have been produced on PB, [1] and a compilation of 40 websites devoted to PB—with each of these appendices including items in various languages. The book’s combination of accessibility and rigor serves as an invitation to new actors to join the cause, and provides a practical repository of experience that will inform communities working to deepen democracy and overcome the crisis of legitimacy plaguing our political institutions.

The right to the city

This volume is the first in a series of books that aims to stimulate collaboration between various forms of emancipatory collective action at the municipal level. The series—titled Alternatives to the City as a Commodity—takes as its point of departure the notion of the “right to the city,” first articulated by Henri Lefebvre in the 1960s (Lefebvre 1968, 1996 ; Harvey 2008). In the introductory chapter of this first volume of the series, Cabannes hones in on two aspects of Lefebvre’s argument : (1) it involves a “superior form of rights,” which is distinguished from the rights of private property, and includes both the right to participatory activity in relation to public works, and the right to the appropriation of public space ; and (2) it implies a concern with the equitable development of the city as a whole, not merely the development of commercial and consumer centers, nor the gentrification of specific neighborhoods, which inevitably displaces populations that had previously occupied those spaces (pp. 23–24). While some readers may be disappointed that Cabannes does not engage in a lengthy theoretical discussion of the notion of the right to the city, the contours of Lefebvre’s thought truly come alive through the vivid descriptions of the concrete practices of PB, which put into action the practical imperatives called for in Lefebvre’s work. Indeed, this book demonstrates how the “right to the city” is incarnated in the actions of ordinary residents who take charge of organizing the public space of their city.

The series as a whole seeks to highlight communities around the world that are “organizing themselves and generating alternatives to challenge an imposed urbanization model based solely on market rules that systematically generates social and economic exclusion” (p. 1). The authors identify six alternative urban practices that seem to bear the most emancipatory potential : (1) participatory budgeting ; (2) community land trusts ; (3) alternatives to forced evictions (i.e. staying in place) ; (4) local currencies ; (5) urban agriculture under the banner of “food sovereignty” ; and (6) housing and employment cooperatives. Although each of these practices is well developed in various cities, the authors indicate that they have not been combined into a unified system, which, they argue, could enable them to be more effectively scaled up, thereby generating a powerful counterforce to hegemonic neoliberal forms of urbanization and helping to advance the cause of the “right to the city.”

Participatory budgeting and the question of scale

In his introductory remarks, Cabannes examines the relation between the 13 instances of PB, the five other emancipatory practices identified above, and the notion of the right to the city. He shows how PB could potentially serve as the fulcrum to unify these various emancipatory practices by highlighting instances in which PB has already been leveraged to provide funding for projects such as community gardens, farmers’ markets, housing cooperatives, urban agriculture, and the reclamation/restoration of public spaces for multi-use purposes. For instance, through the PB of Yaoundé, Cameroon, a muddy ground well was transformed into a public fountain that now serves over 50,000 people in a district marked by profound poverty. But beyond serving as “an immaculate collective water point,” the space has become a dynamic meeting place for a wide range of groups and activities. “It offers today a multifunctional area where different generations can interact,” which is quite distinct from the “monofunctional areas of the few public spaces in ‘modern’ Yaoundé” (pp. 24–25). Neoliberal urbanization privatizes public space for commercial development and capital accumulation. But this process was reversed by the collective action of ordinary residents in Yaoundé, who were able to appropriate space for public use, the very embodiment of the first aspect of Lefebvre’s notion of the right to the city, identified above. However, the projects decided in this PB process do not encompass the city as a whole ; therefore they do not meet the second of Lefebvre’s criteria.

The PB of Seville, Spain, on the other hand, was one of the few instances where participants were able to overcome the focus on neighborhood or district projects. Scaling up their action to the city level, residents decided to design and construct a citywide system of bike lanes. But rather than connecting residential areas to “districts of consumption”—as is often the preference of insulated city managers aiming to draw consumers to centers of commerce—the residents of Seville designed the system to “connect low-income settlements, between themselves and with places of work or universities and schools” (p. 26). Although the Seville PB was one of the most vigorous in terms of the intensity of participation, unfortunately it “was not able to withstand the political changes at City Hall, and today no longer exists” (p. 147).

Even so, as indicated by Baiocchi and Ganuza (2017), the experience of Seville was an important reference point in what they refer to as a “participatory wave” that swept across Spain starting in the mid‑2000s : roughly a hundred Spanish cities had implemented some form of PB by 2009, providing a kind of school of democracy (Streck 2010) for the indignados (Robinson 2011), who appeared in the streets and squares of Spain in 2011, protesting the austerity politics of the European Union (pp. 100–101). While “nearly everybody was surprised by their [the indignados’] dynamics of discussion,” many had learned these skills through their participation in municipal-level PB processes (p. 101). One outcome of their actions was the construction of new political parties at the national level, such as Podemos. These events demonstrate that the implementation of numerous municipal-level PB processes can contribute to the advancement of emancipatory political projects at larger scales.

The PB of Chengdu, China—a megacity of over 15 million people—is an impressive case of PB being implemented at the metropolitan scale. Given the huge disparity between the quality of life in the urban and the rural regions of the metropolitan area, the PB process began in the rural villages as a means to ameliorate the urban–rural divide. Between 2009 and 2016, it allocated over US$1.2 billion to over 50,000 projects across 2,308 rural villages (Cabannes 2017, pp. 20, 173). This PB process is “closely tied to the land reform of property law,” and has allowed many peasants to avoid being evicted from their lands while simultaneously securing funding for projects that have increased their income (p. 30). This use of PB to directly intervene in the agricultural mode of production has enabled groups of smallholder farmers to secure their right to production despite the worldwide onslaught of agricultural modernization, representing a compelling case of “food sovereignty.” [2]

Perhaps most significantly, Chengdu’s process “was largely designed with limited reference to international experience” of PB (p. 173). Rather than mimicking institutions developed elsewhere, this PB process was rooted in the local institutional and social reality from the start, leading to an effectiveness and stability that has evaded many experiences of PB. Indeed, many instances of PB remain highly ineffective because they lack deep roots in government institutions and in civil society (p. 37). Developing PB organically, so to speak, directly from the local context, seems to be an essential component of success, which is underscored by Cabannes’ contention that “there is no blueprint” for PB (pp. 44–51).

Although Chengdu’s PB process is impressive, given the vast geographical area it covers, the projects it funds remain localized to the district level, as in the case of Yaoundé. Seville’s project of the citywide bike lanes, on the other hand, offers a glimpse of PB’s potential of reclaiming the right to the city as a whole, fulfilling Lefebvre’s second criterion mentioned above. And the “participatory wave” that swept across Spain with the establishment of around 100 municipal-level PB processes in the space of roughly five years, served as a diffuse school of democracy for many of the future leaders of the indignados and Podemos, revealing the potential of local participatory democracy to have effects beyond the local level in the broad task of transforming the relations of power between the local, the regional, the national, and the global. Nonetheless, the question of genuinely scaling up PB to the regional or national level—wherein projects funded would be of a regional or national scope, rather than isolated to a multiplicity of local projects scattered across a large geographical expanse—remains a serious challenge to overcome for practitioners of PB. Despite this challenge, the emancipatory potential of city-level PB processes should not be understated.

At a moment in history when xenophobic nationalism is on the rise at the level of the nation state, in large part as a response to the oppressive effects of the neoliberal practices that are increasingly entrenched in international institutions, emancipatory political projects at the scale of the city can serve as powerful anchors in the wider effort to disrupt the mobility and dominance of global capital. Participatory budgeting has an important role to play in this task. Particularly when a plurality of parallel (but distinctly local) practices of PB are developed in municipalities across a wide geographical region (as was the case in Spain), PB bears the potential not only to reclaim the right to the city in isolation, but also to function as a school of democracy that could anchor ambitious emancipatory projects at the scales of the region, the nation state, and perhaps even the planet. Cabannes’ anthology of the diversity of recent experiences with participatory budgeting makes an important contribution to the ongoing struggle for democracy in the 21st century.


  • Andrée, P., Ayres, J., Bosia, M. and Massicotte, M. (eds.). 2017. Globalization and Food Sovereignty : Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food, Toronto : University of Toronto Press.
  • Baiocchi, G. and Ganuza, E. 2017. Popular Democracy : The Paradox of Participation, Stanford : Stanford University Press.
  • Cabannes, Y. 2017. Another City is Possible with Participatory Budgeting, Montreal : Black Rose Books.
  • Harvey, D. 2008. “The Right to the City”, The New Left Review, vol. 53.
  • La Via Campesina. 2003. “Food Sovereignty”.
  • Lefebvre, H. 1968. Le Droit à la ville, Paris : Anthropos.
  • Lefebvre, H. 1996. Writings on Cities (trans. and ed. by E. Kofman, and E. Lebas), Oxford : Blackwell.
  • Robinson, A. 2011. “Spain’s ‘Indignados’ Take the Square”, The Nation, 8 June.
  • Streck, D. 2010. “Citizenship Can Be Learned : Participatory Budgeting as a Pedagogical Process”, in D. Streck, A New Social Contract in a Latin American Context, New York : Palgrave Macmillan, “Postcolonial Studies in Education” series, pp. 119–138.

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Tyler James Olsen, “Reclaiming the “Right to the City” Through Participatory Budgeting”, Métropolitiques, 19 février 2019. URL :

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