“Urban Center” is a term used to describe any institution whose core mission is to inform and engage citizens in urban planning and public policy.
Originally conceived in the US as a physically central place institutionally appointed to inform, communicate and discuss urban transformation projects, Urban Centers aim to create an forum of debate for administrators, professionals, businesspeople, social groups, citizens’ committees, and individuals who intend actively to contribute to shaping the future of the city.
The Urban Center phenomenon is hinged on the complexity of city government cultures which generate different forms of interpretation, attributable to two classical models of the culture of rights:
In “Civil Law” countries the inspiration is usually an institution of local government, either exclusively or in partnership with other interested parties.
In “Common Law” countries the legal and cultural milieu instead favours the creation of Urban Centers by neutral subjects, who are not part of the public administration (i.e. academic institutions, non-profit associations, community corporations, business groups, foundations).
Overcoming the traditional public/private dichotomy has promoted a wider audience of stakeholders in the decision-making process, in which the dialectic between established entities (local authorities, business groups and financial investors) and “emerging actors” (specialised societies, non-profit organizations, groups of common interest, etc.) may be consolidated in an Urban Center: “glass houses” for shared city development scenarios.
Interest in the UC phenomenon is linked to the evolution that these structures may represent for local government authorities. They can become an intriguing opportunity to experiment with new forms of participatory and deliberative democracy, not only limited to the passive recipients of communication, but aimed towards the shared construction of guidelines for urban policy.