The democratic foundations of the Just City (2017-2020)

Prosperous cities in Europe have difficulties in offering sufficient affordable housing, they exhibit hot spots with socially deprived population groups, provided these groups have not already been displaced into the agglomeration. And yet city administrations do have a number of instruments at their disposal for countering (but also for reinforcing) these trends.


As principal investigator of an international SNSF project, I investigate the use of such instruments in three cities: Birmingham, Lyon, and Zurich. Urban zoning and building plans determine the permitted uses and plot ratios for each lot of the city, thereby defining the incentives and conditions for private developers. These plans also have an impact on possible housing policies, the creation of public parks or community centres. Departing from the urban planning concept of the “Just City” we explore the urban developments with regard to social hot spots, displacement, affordable housing and the set up of public amenities – from the 1990s to present.

By focusing on the facilitating actors, processes and democratic institutions, the issue of the “Just City” is firstly investigated from a political science perspective. We complement previous work on leadership, democratic accountability and participatory planning with an integral view for three cities featuring different national planning systems and local government systems. Results will be discussed with political decision makers, administrative agencies and political activists.

Project partners: Daniel Kübler and Roman Zwicky at the Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau (University of Zurich), Peter Lee, Eric Chu and Charlotte Hoole at the School of Geography (University of Birmingham); project duration: 2017-2020.

School governance and social mixing (2017-2018)

In a side-project, I pick up on recent research on school segregation. I scrutinize the role of elected school boards, school administrations and municipal and cantonal regulations for either counteracting or exacerbating segregation through ‘gerrymandering’ school districts and school catchment areas in the five largest Swiss cities, thus impacting on the spatial access to educational opportunities.

Exchange partners: Venla Bernelius (University of Helsinki), Willem Boterman (University of Amsterdam).

European city mayors in vertical and horizontal relations (2014-2017)

City mayors are experiencing unstable times regarding vertical relations with higher state levels. After the financial crisis of 2007, structural pressures on cities have increased, urging mayors to focus on the needs of local business, attracting external resources, and cooperating with governments at different state levels. Depending on their core beliefs, some mayors might call for the creation of metropolitan governments in order to address rising inequalities in the provision of public services and amenities across the metropolitan area. Also, from a democratic point of view, we would expect mayors to represent their citizens in their views with regard to inter-municipal mergers.

Based on the second round of the European Mayor Survey (POLLEADER II), I have investigated this range of issues in a peer-reviewed article forthcoming in Local Government Studies, a co-authored book chapter (in Political Leaders and Changing Local Democracy, forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan), various collaborative papers and the sole editorship of a Symposium currently under review by a scientific journal. Embedded within the SVPW congress in February 2018 I am co-organizing a workshop for a special issue on mayors and the Ideal City, to be submitted to a scientific journal.

Democracy in Swiss municipalities (2014-2017)

Started by commissioned research for the Association of Municipal Presidents of the canton of Argovia, I have taken interest in the challenges and possible reforms of the lay people organisation of municipal councils. Based on electoral data collected in the single municipalities, we have shown the dramatic increase of uncontested municipal elections over the last four decades: in smaller rural municipalities nine out of ten elections did non involve any real choice of candidates. We have found that recruitment problems were most pressing in smaller municipalities that have abstained from public management reforms and increases in administrative resources. Related to this research, I have co-edited a book with Daniel Kübler, asking whether (Swiss) municipalities were still the schools of democracy.

Recruitment problems are also plaguing the municipal school boards charged with leading and supervising the public schools. After installing professional heads of schools and delegating competences to the municipal council, school boards have suffered a loss of importance or were abolished altogether. In a book chapter I show the analogies between the challenges and reforms of municipal and school governance and discuss the need for a proper division of labour between professionals and lay people in order to secure the trust needed for the daily operation of public schools.


In a further SNSF project together with Fabrizio Gilardi, we have done an enormous effort for expanding the set of municipal electoral data to ten cantons, since introduction of female suffrage (firstly in 1959). Besides electoral turnout, electoral competition and recruitment problems, these data show the diffusion of the supply and demand for women’s representation over space and time (click animation above).

Democratic Qualities in the Swiss cantons (2008-2014)

I have been involved in a SNSF project with the aim of developing a multi-dimensional measure for assessing democratic qualities as defined by more liberal or more radical models of democracy. We have collected yearly data from 1979 until 2009, data based on the analysis of cantonal constitutions, cantonal laws, regular national surveys, electoral data, fiscal statistics, and newspaper archives. Although we do find the expected divide between more representative and more participatory cantonal democracies, this divide does not confirm the long-standing claim of a language boarder, but is rather explained by historical democratic reform movements.

In my PhD thesis, I show that the ‘crisis of democracy’ is less of a crisis of the state in terms of economic or welfare state policies, but rather a crisis of legitimacy. Thereby, the two empirical models of democracy are challenged in complementary ways: more liberal democratic reforms seem to go along with decreasing levels of public trust and community, whereas the cantons with strong direct participation face difficulties in fulfilling another radical demand – the inclusion of all affected.