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We are a multidisciplinary innovation studio working with diverse partners to understand sustainability challenges and identify holistic, resilient solutions, and we are committed to training the next generation of leaders.


Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What Does Governance Even Mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

Building on last week’s theme of collaboration and in honor of the late Dr. Benjamin Barber, a champion of cities and democracy, we will explore the difference between city “government” and “governance.” But what does governance even mean? 

Today, the unprecedented pace and scale of urbanization combined with globalization is fundamentally shifting how cities are governed. Furthermore, the complexity and magnitude of pressing urban challenges, from poverty to climate change, transcends jurisdictional and disciplinary boundaries and cannot be addressed by local governments alone.

Typically saddled with slow bureaucracies, tight budgets, and greater responsibility from national governments, local governments are increasingly relying on external resources, expertise, and input to address these key challenges. The concept of governance has emerged to describe the multi-sectoral response to the limits of governments in the face of rapid change and complexity of modern society. 

Distilled from multiple fields of study, urban governance refers to the formal and informal relationships between units of local government and a network of governance actors, including private and public institutions, that influence and support critical functions of planning and managing city life. 

Urban governance actors are often grouped into three spheres: (1) state (or political society), (2) market (or economic society), and (3) civil society. In this context, civil society refers to any alliance, organization, or association autonomously formed by citizens who share common interests, needs, and values. In reality, the boundaries and responsibilities between these distinctive categories of state, market, and civil society are somewhat blurred. 

Relationships between governance actors are forged by a mutually beneficial exchange of resources, capacity, or support for a shared goal, interest, or value. Thus, the conditions necessary for governance actors to cooperate include the following:
1. Perceived presence of mutual interest or area of common concern;
2. Potential of exchange, where actors see each other as providing valuable and
complementary resources to solve common problems; and
3. Lack of alternatives, in that the collective benefit or solution could not be achieved if actors worked independently.

One of the most remarkable cross-sectoral governance efforts in Chicago’s recent history was the Chicago Climate Action Plan during its heyday from 2008-2011. Could it be time to dust that plan off, and reignite the momentum behind it?