Niches in City Governance

Fragment Metamorphosis II by M. C. Escher.

Jack P. Kruf

A niche is the match of a component in an ecosystem to a specific environmental condition within that, the habitat. Here it is an organisation (in the City Ecosystem® defined as biotic component) linked with its physical and biological environment. The niche is the role the organisation has in the city. Most of the niches in modern cities are regulated, but sometimes something unexpected can happen and shake-up the existing palette. As we know, every ecosystem is in constant change. So do cities.

There are different perspectives to consider niches. It can be related to chains and cycles – for instance that of energy, food or water -, related to specific functions – such as safety, care, sport, culture -, related to specific services within the city – information, communication, transport, media – or related to the elements of governance – like strategy, planning, finance. Here we focus on the latest, niches in governance.

In principal all niches can be taken by all organisations. Per organisation it can though highly differ and depend on time and place of value and related factors. Sometimes it can have more than one niches at the same time, depending of time and phase change roles. Laws, rules, regulations and above all the Constitution has lead to a more strict attribution of niches.

A usable set can be found in the work of The Quality Institute Dutch Municipalities (KING) and is summarised by Aardema et al. (2005). It is a set of interconnected roles from governance perspective (system world) with roles as steward, law maker & enforcer, tax collector, developer, service provider and representative and from governed perspective (living world) with roles as inhabitant, servant, tax payer, partner, client and voter. The pieces of chess are added by me, to make roles and connections more visible and understandable:

Overview of niches (roles) according Dutch Government related to the pieces of chess.

Steward (black king): symbolise, identify, connect, show compassion, taking care, welcome, strengthen cohesion, carry rituals, guard.

Regulator (black queen): decisiveness, power, threaten, demand, courage, persevere, set things right, constrain, discipline, set the rules and enforce them.

Collector (black bishop): go-between, facilitate, contract, collect tax, process.

Developer (black knight): involve, sense of community, strengthen cohesion, share and distribute, (letting) participate, co-create.

Service provider (black rook): deliver, serve, provide, distribute, front office.

Representative (black pawn): chosen by the people during election in councils, representing the people as citizen.

Inhabitant (white king): citizen, live in city and neighbourhood.

Servant (white queen): obey and follow laws, rules, regulations.

Contributor (white bishop): tax pay, contribute, donate, volunteer, support, finance, fund.

Partner (white knight): develop, contribute in knowledge, feelings and insights, co-create.

Client (white rook): receive products and services, indicate choice.


An ecosystem does not have a separate governing department, as cities have. It is self regulated. In other words, if we do want the city to consider as an ecosystem than all times politics, elected and governing councils as well as civil servant organisations are perceived as an integral part of the system. Government is the in principal within the box of the ecosystem, not outside the box. And governance is an integral part of the city as a whole. Most governments though consider themselves as the governing part. It is this dilemma, that causes the need to redesign the used governance-governed, the system world-living world approach. For now we work with it.


Aardema, H. en A. Korsten (2005) De Staat van de Gemeente: Op weg naar een handzame, landelijke gemeentemonitor. Den Haag: VGS, BMC, PON, Open Universiteit Nederland, InAxis. Link

Escher, M.C. (1939-1940) Metamorphosis II [Woodcut]. Den Haag: Paleis.