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What Can San Francisco Learn from Cities in the Global South?


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Public Books has a conversation between two distinguished scholars of urbanism about what beleaguered cities like San Francisco can learn from cities in the Global South. Teresa Caldeira, a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley, and Saskia Sassen, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, explore how efforts by cities in places like Brazil and Colombia to increase democratic participation among citizens could help cities in the Global North tackle seemingly intractable problems like gentrification, housing shortages, and property speculation. Here’s an excerpt:

Teresa Caldeira (TC) : … What can San Francisco learn from cities in the Global South? Probably there is a long list that we can go through. But basically I think that some of the most important things are political experiments that expand citizenship and affirm rights to the city.

Several cities in the Global South have been doing those experiments for at least 20 to 30 years, and I think those are incredibly important, because in fact the conditions that expand democracy are at the basis of all the other things that happen in those cities and that can be transmitted as experiments to cities like San Francisco. Many cities are creating practices of direct democracy and consolidating the notion of urban citizenship. Those experiments usually are experiments of deliberative democracy, of direct popular participation. They also frequently affirm the rights of citizens to the city regardless of national citizenship.

So cities can have very important roles in this political moment, in creating by themselves important policies that uphold the rights of residents regardless of their political citizenship status. The city of San Francisco already has some of this: for example, making health care available and affordable to uninsured residents; the municipal ID card; sometimes the right for noncitizens to vote for the school board; and transformation into a Sanctuary City. Those are all things that cities can do and are doing.

Another thing that comes from the experiments of the Global South, probably the most famous, is PB, participatory budgeting, which started in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 1989 and now happens in more than 1,500 cities around the world, including Vallejo here in the Bay area. Those are processes in which citizens are given the task of deliberating about how to allocate part of the city’s budget. This is very important, because citizens can deliberate : they not only discuss but also have the power to allocate the budget. This process of participation also creates very important networks and ties among citizens.

Image: JR, The Chronicles of San Francisco, digital mural at SFMOMA, 2019. Via SFMOMA.