What are the theoretical tools at our disposal for helping explain local participatory processes in the context of the governance of social and ethnic diversity in cities? Conventional wisdom within urban scholarship often has it that new modes of governance are, by definition, more conducive to participatory practice in cities. In this article we take issue with this assumption with reference to political process derived from Habermas and Mouffe as well as detailed case material on participation in the Delfshaven district of Rotterdam (the Netherlands) and in the Antwerp‐North district (Belgium). While we are sympathetic with the ideals of Habermas given the highly fragmented, individualized and conflictive politics observed in Antwerp, we equally do not see the alternative in the bureaucratic form of rationality we see in Rotterdam. We therefore argue for a radicalized communicative rationality, combining a Habermas‐inspired ideal speech situation with more organic, grassroots and bottom‐up processes in line with Mouffe. Our ‘hybridized’ conception of participation transcends the pervasive tendency to treat Habermas and Mouffe, among others, as epistemologically distinct and concerned with incommensurable conceptions of social power. The article concludes with a discussion of the implications of our argument for theorizing governance and participation in cities.