Civil society engagement to strengthen municipalities in sustainable urban development: a real-world laboratory in Dessau-Roßlau


Civic engagement for sustainable urban development that is oriented towards the common good is gaining in importance. Civil society initiatives are conquering and shaping spaces in order to realise their ideas of sustainable, cooperative forms of building, living, consuming and working. With their creative approaches to action and design, they often provide the impetus for a socio-ecological transformation of society.

On the one hand, civic engagement is seen to have great potential, but on the other hand it is also problematised that this type of ‘informal urbanism’ (Willinger, 2014) is largely disconnected from municipal administrative processes. Analyses informed by social theory show that different logics of action from politics, public administration, science, the business community and civil society might clash in municipal governance. Against this background, the research project explores the question of how different perspectives and tensions between various actors can be mediated within municipal governance. It focuses on enabling structures - specifically intermediary spaces - and their design in order to enable mutual understanding and cooperative action between municipal and civil society actors.

Research objectives

  • The objective is to gain insights into the potentials and challenges of civic engagement in the context of socio-ecological transformations.
  • From a social theory perspective, the aim is to understand and explain obstacles - in the sense of lacking resonance and connectivity - to civic engagement in municipal governance, and to identify design options and governance approaches for increasing resonance, specifically through intermediary spaces. The project aims to contribute to the discourse on the dynamics of modern society and its transformative capacity.

Research questions

  • How should enabling structures - in the sense of intermediary spaces - be designed in order to enable mutual understanding and cooperative action for socio-ecological transformations?
  • To what extent do social dynamics and cultural patterns hinder an effective policy for civic engagement?
  • What recommendations for action and policy can be derived from the case study of civic engagement in Dessau-Roßlau?

Research approach

The project adopts a transdisciplinary research approach. It studies civic engagement in the context of sustainable urban development by introducing a real-world laboratory in the city of Dessau-Roßlau. It adopts a pro-active, ethnographic and participatory approach in order to depict the social dynamics and cultural patterns of civic engagement. Empirical data are collected and analysed through ethnographic mapping and description.

The Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development is jointly funded by the federal government and the federal states.

FS Sachsen

This measure is co-financed by tax funds on the basis of the budget approved by the Saxon State Parliament.