Urban development and the illusion of participation

"Mediaspree Versenken" is an important urban social movement in Berlin, that was successful in stopping real estate speculation along the river Spree.

“Mediaspree versenken” is an important urban social movement in Berlin, that was successful in stopping real estate speculation along the river Spree.

by Ares Kalandides

Participation has somehow managed to become the cliché of urban planning. You know, one of these terms that have lost their meaning through constant lip service. Participatory planning is taught at universities and is an integral part of every relevant tender. No planner who respects herself would ever imagine talking about her work in any other way than as participatory. My own experience shows that, although we start off with the best intentions, what we finally do is use participation as an excuse for business as usual. Let me explain.

It is indeed one of the principles of democracy that those affected by a decision should have the right to participate in it. Yet, the existence of a right is not enough. As we know, it is the possibilities of access to that right that matter equally. It is like placing a plate of food for somebody on a high shelf, without giving them the ladder to reach it, and claiming that we are feeding them. If we are seriously talking about participation, then we should be giving the dish and the ladder. How does participation usually work (or not)?

At least in Germany, and in many countries I have worked in, participation is inscribed into planning laws: at different stages of urban planning citizens are given the possibility to actively express their views. The administration is obliged to discuss them, though not necessarily to follow them. Beside that, there are several informal instruments of public debate and a wide range of information events. But anybody following all these gatherings cannot avoid noticing that it is always the same people (more or less) who attend: middle-class youngish men. It is quite understandable. Participating in public needs certain skills: you need to be outgoing and self-confident; you need to be able to use language to your advantage; you need to have time and stamina. Not easy if you are a mother of two whose mother tongue is not German. Yet, participation, to deserve the name, should also be there for a mother of two whose mother tongue is not German.

Private planning studios work with participation in a different way. We are asked to “include stakeholders” when designing any kind of spatial development framework. There are several problems linked to that: First of all, what do we mean by stakeholders? I understand it as above, i.e. “anybody influenced by the decision”. But this is so broad and so difficult to define, that it makes it almost impossible to implement. Who is actually not affected by such a comprehensive planning process? What we then usually do is that we try to reach a second level of representation: we include associations, groups etc., who then speak for a larger number of people. That is fine, but let’s not forget that few people are really organized in any kind of formalized group. The second issue is about the time restrictions of such planning projects. There is rarely enough time to seriously prepare participation processes, as the client (usually some administrative body) pushes for fast results. So what we usually do is to rely on the people our client choses for us – with quite obvious results. Finally, there is the question of balance and power-relations between the recommendations of the external consultant (us), the administration and the opinions or wishes of the stakeholders. I have written extensively on this last subjects in the past.

So what choices do we have? Are we doomed to planning without real participation? I don’t think so. First of all,  the administration is not some kind of massive homogeneous body, but has its own internal contradictions. There are many opinions expressed inside these structures and we generally try to create alliances where it is possible.  That is why having different levels and forms of public administration involved is quite important, even though it sometimes makes our professional life miserable. Also, we should remember that ideally an administration is controlled democratically and it is towards a better participatory control that we should be looking at.

Secondly, we need to be very conscious about the weaknesses of usual participation methods and air our doubts clearly. We can not go on pretending we include when in fact we just place the dish on the highest shelf without a ladder. By saying that in public, there can be ideas of who else to include and how. One way to go is  by trying to make sure that at least the analytical part of a project is based on a large number of qualitative (eg.g. one-to-one semi-structured) interviews with a broader range of people. This may not include them in the decision-making, but at least it gives us the possibility to speak “for” them.  Finally, there are a lot of other ways of communication that do not necessarily use language. Artists have experimented with different forms, using for example visual or performing arts as a way of non-verbal expression. Trying out different types of inclusion formats which may serve different people seems to me very important.

Unfortunately in most cases, whenever I hear the word participatory (or even bottom-up) planning, I usually brace myself for the worst.

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8 Responses to Urban development and the illusion of participation

  1. axillefs says:

    Great article.
    I was wondering if could give us your insight about participatory planning practices in Greece.

  2. Sarita Pillay says:

    Interesting observation. Agree with you on the general dubiousness of “participatory planning”. In South Africa, we also have government legislation (and a constitutional mandate) that emphasises the importance of citizen participation in processes and decisions that affect their livelihood. However, these so-called “processes” of participation are highly flawed, hierarchical and exclusionary. Usually, it’s not so much a forum for participation, but a forum of “telling” people about developments. There is very little opportunity for them to directly influence the processes and ideas. Also, the poor are often considered uninformed and unintelligent by planning and government officials – and thus they are often not taken seriously in such forums. Existing racial/gender/education hierarchies warp the “participatory planning” attempts.

    • Are you familiar with the Augustenborg Project in Malmö? (http://malmo.se/English/Sustainable-City-Development/Augustenborg-Eco-City.html)
      It’s participation approach is of course not perfect, but was considered quite successful, with resident participation highlighted since the beginning of the project (I think over 60% of residents participated to a certain degree in the 10 year project). This also correlated with higher voter participation & many spin-off initiatives by the residents. Malmö has gone on with this approach in other neighbourhoods, but of course it takes time and sometimes falls short – especially with the economic crisis and less resources to facilitate active PP approaches. Still, I think it is a step in the right direction.

      • Ares says:

        No actually, I don’t and it sounds interesting. Have you got anything on the participation process? It is not only about the numbers of those who participate (which are of course very important), but also about any kind of systematic exclusions.

      • Check the link I sent. There is a lot of info about Augustenborg on various websites, and they have won quite some awards. I used to work in Malmö (with this, but mainly other projects, such as the Western Harbour – so not an expert on Augustenborg much anymore).

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