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Women standing in the street talking
Citizens' direct action is increasing

Concerned citizens taking ‘guerrilla’ action to tackle problems in their communities may become increasingly common across the Global North as urban government faces dwindling resources, a new study reveals.

‘Urban patching’ sees residents responding directly to perceived or actual ruptures in local infrastructure - potentially an untapped resource of local people who can help to co-produce solutions to infrastructure problems in their neighbourhood.

Austerity and decreasing state resources in developed market economies has led to citizen ‘end-users’ starting to step into the breach and creating solutions – some of which may challenge the traditional responsibilities of local government.

Public service cuts and local government inability to respond rapidly to community concerns – combined with a feeling that people’s needs are not being listened to – can result in citizens taking ‘guerrila’ action to tackle local infrastructure issues.

Professor John Bryson - Chair in Enterprise and Economic Geography at the University of Birmingham

Publishing their findings in Urban Studies, researchers from the University of Birmingham and University College London say that citizen intervention could become part of an urban governance toolkit operating hand-in-hand with public service provision.

Professor John Bryson, Chair in Enterprise and Economic Geography at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Public service cuts and local government inability to respond rapidly to community concerns – combined with a feeling that people’s needs are not being listened to – can result in citizens taking ‘guerrilla’ action to tackle local infrastructure issues.

“In an era of heightened social media activity, local governance settlements may start to unravel further as residents work together to tackle pressing community concerns – action which officials and policymakers may initially regard as illegitimate and unwelcome.”

The researchers note that urban patching can be unevenly distributed, even across a single city, but often reflects a belief that urban government is failing to recognise, understand or listen to residents’ concerns. However, once accepted, urban patching activities can become part of local government’s toolkit to serve public need.

Their research is based on data collected in Birmingham (UK) between 2017 and 2021 -uncovering a range of urban patching examples. Birmingham was selected as a case study, following an independent review of its City Council in 2014, which found it was not ‘getting the basics right’ and ‘did not understand what was happening in its communities’.

Like most local authorities in the UK under austerity, the City Council experienced a significant reduction in government funding between 2010 and 2016 - leading to cuts in numbers of full-time employees and outsourcing of roles.

Localised problems, identified by residents, motivated citizens to develop their own solutions to infrastructure problems. Examples cited in the study include:

  • Residents in the city’s Balsall Heath area took action to tackle drugs and prostitution problems – picketing on street corners and disrupting the everyday routines of pimps, sex workers, clients, and drug dealers. This captured media attention - forcing police and Council to reconsider their approach and introduce a ‘street watch’ scheme; six months later crime levels dropped in the area.
  • The UK National Lottery-funded ‘Together We Can!’ initiative - a three-year intergenerational, community building project in East Birmingham. Local community groups supporting residents to grow in the confidence, skills and connections enabling them to contribute to the life of their neighbourhood.
  • The City Council’s ‘Be Heard’ website encourages citizens to report problems, raise queries, and learn about formal consultation opportunities. However, few citizens use this engagement opportunity - feedback suggested that the platform provided no mechanism for a two-way exchange highlighting that the council was listening to residents’ concerns.