Why cities must confront place-less power

2 October 2020

by Robin Hambleton

The imaginative responses of cities and communities to the challenges laid down by the COVID-19 calamity have been, and continue to be, inspiring.

In a new book, to be published later this month – Cities and communities beyond COVID-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better – I explore why this is the case.

Yes, city governments are closer to the people than national governments.  Yes, they are clearly able to move far more quickly than large, often lumbering, central government bureaucracies.  Yes, city leaders often see public policy challenges in the round, rather than through the distorting lens of departmental blinkers.

But these are only some of the reasons why cities should be supported in leading the way forward for post COVID-19 recovery.


What is the nature of the COVID-19 challenge?

The first point to emphasise is that city and civic leaders do not face a single ‘COVID-19’ question.  Rather they are confronted with, at least, three major challenges at once: post COVID-19 recovery, the global climate emergency, and the disastrous growth in social and economic inequality that disfigures life in many countries.

The central challenge societies now face is, then, not the public health crisis, nor is it the frightening collapse of economic opportunities for so many people.

Alarming as these shocks are to our way of life, the much bigger challenge is to develop arrangements for governing societies that can not only address these pressing public policy issues in a creative way but also prevent calamities of this kind from happening in the future.

The central argument I am making here is that to improve societal and environmental resilience we need to strengthen the civic capacity of localities.  In short, we need to bring about a massive boost in the power of place in the modern world.


Inclusive cities are leading the way

The good news is that there are many examples of cities around the world that are demonstrating how collaborative, inclusive civic leadership is able to break new ground and I refer to some of them in my book.

Take Copenhagen, Denmark. Already recognised as the healthiest capital in Europe, Lord Mayor Frank Jensen and his colleagues are now aiming for the city to be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital in 2025.

Interestingly, the city is promoting cycling as an effective way of responding to the COVID-19 emergency.  City leaders know that, while the city already has more bicycles than cars, much more can be done. Their strategy recognises that cyclists incur less risk of infection and that promoting cycling is a good strategy for reducing obesity levels in the population.

Here in Bristol, UK, my home city, Mayor Marvin Rees has developed a One City Approach to city governance that has developed an entirely new way of energising civic leaders in the city – from in and outside the state – to work in a strikingly, collaborative way on solving the problems now facing the city.

This has led to a plethora of new initiatives – from efforts to tackle homelessness in the city, through to the imaginative Period Friendly Bristol Initiative, which is designed to bring period dignity to the many women and girls in the city that are denied access to menstrual products, to the development of a new Economic Recovery Strategy for the City.

The European Urban Research Association (EURA) has created a space for ‘EURA Conversations’ about the future direction for cities as societies recover from COVID-19.


Our key challenge: confronting place-less power

The key challenge that now faces societies across the world is to confront place-less power.  By place-less power I mean the exercise of power by decision makers who are unconcerned about the impacts of their decisions on communities living in particular places.

The forces of globalisation, which have resulted in a remarkable growth in the number of multinational companies operating on a global basis, have provided the engine for this expansion in place-less policy making, and the consequences for social, economic and environmental justice have been dire.

Across the world, in Europe and beyond, we can see that local people living in particular communities and localities have responded with care and compassion to friends and neighbours.

We need to listen to these local voices and realise that place-based caring and collaboration provides the way forward for societies. These voices are place-based and they say ‘no’ to place-less power.


Robin Hambleton is emeritus professor of city leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol; director, Urban Answers.

His new book is ‘Cities and Communities Beyond Covid-19. How local leadership can change our future for the better’. Bristol University Press.

The book will be launched at a free online event on 8 October 2020.



Robin Hambleton Emeritus Professor of City Leadership, University of the West of England, Bristol