Participation is a popular buzzword in contemporary urban studies. For some, it implies a deepening of democratic deliberation; for others, it represents grassroots resistance to powerful elites and neoliberalization. Rather than seeing participation as either consensus‐building or conflicts of interest, as either a top‐down or bottom‐up process, the evidence suggests that it can be all of these. By adopting a more dynamic, pragmatic, and empirically informed perspective, seemingly opposite normative conceptions of democratic participation may be theorized as different ‘moments’ in the democratic process. Bottom‐up mobilization may coincide with and complement top‐down initiatives, each dominating different political phases of policymaking, implementation and monitoring. Case studies from Belfast, Berlin, Durban, Philadelphia and São Paulo illustrate the approach and provide insight into the urban as a social laboratory in which other scales of social life and multiple ways to perform democracy are constructed.