The South Durban Basin on the eastern coast of South Africa is home to both a large‐scale petrochemical industry and a highly mobilized residential community. In a conflict cemented by apartheid‐era planning, the community’s campaigns to improve local air quality provide a test case for the value of conflict for participatory democratic structures. In the context of the work of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the South Durban Basin also provides an opportunity to push the boundaries of the established links between participation and the design and implementation of responses to a changing climate. Contributing to one of the main themes of the symposium, this article argues that the focus on collaboration and compromise within studies of governance and participation overlooks both the reality of conflict and its potentially positive effects. Addressing this requires particular attention to how power relationships influence processes of governance, and the role of civil society in balancing the influence of the private sector on the state. It also calls for a better understanding of conflict and collaboration as mutually re‐enforcing elements of an ongoing and dynamic political process. Together, the elements of this critique help to build a more nuanced view of participatory urban governance: one that both better describes and may better facilitate the ability of urban populations to collectively, effectively and rapidly respond to the challenges of a changing climate.