As we question the power of citizens in the fabric of Western cities, we come to a paradox. Etymologically, a citizen, or civis, in Latin, enjoys the right to live in the city and manage it – by participating in assemblies, debating on decisions to be made – and to be elected as a magistrate, recalls Bernadette Liou-Gille in her book, Civis Romanus: Initiation aux institutions et à la vie politique romaines sous la République. The word “democracy” comes from a Greek term with the same meaning: the citizens of the city (demos) hold the power (cratein). A democratic regime entrusts the government to all; all are involved in collective choices.
In our representative democracies, citizens delegate their power to representatives. Universal suffrage serves to express the general will through the elected officials. Therefore, in terms of urbanism, since decentralization, the election of the municipal council through universal suffrage ensures the council’s power to vote on the local urbanism plan (PLU) and its adjustments, and to vote on the establishment of a Zone d’Aménagement Concerté (urban development zones or ZAC), for example.
Citizens strongly question this indirect power over their living environment. In the words of the first president of the Court of Cassation, Chantal Arens, in her speech on 10 January 2020, a “culture of defiance” towards institutions is developing in the society. The main reasons evoked are the perception of a retreating political power which benefits the economic sphere, and choices in terms of urbanism which are often made by an omnipotent group of municipalities, a scale nevertheless deemed relevant by professionals to pool the thoughts, challenges and resources in the various regions.
But in this context, the types of citizen participation are multiplying, supported by an increasingly close collaboration between the public and private sectors. Political scientist Loïc Blondiaux interprets this as a rising “new spirit of democracy” which bodes well for the future.