In order to have a coherent ecosystem, there needs to be porosity in the interactions between different communities. You know city planning is moving in the right direction when the immediate challenges of the locals are addressed, by understanding them at a grass root level.
Planners are experts in design with technical knowledge. Citizens are experts in local experiences and living environments. By mixing these two types of knowledge we can attain the sweet spot of relevant planning.
Previously we talked about the basics of participatory planning, its importance and challenges. We also threw light on how we, at UDC, go about practicing it; and the numerous participatory workshops conducted in collaboration with several agencies.
There is no single way to go about it. And there is no right or wrong, as long as the method involves immersive community engagement, and the objective is planning through local empowerment.
For example, The Montreal Urban Ecology Center was founded to enable participatory sustainable development. The center works towards raising awareness among citizens about urban issues like urban planning, neighbourhood revitalization, community and economic development, etc. In turn, it initiates various green and urban development projects that encourage active citizen involvement. One such initiative is the Quartiers Verts, Actifs et en Santé (QVAS) project, launched in 2008. The objective was to transform four Montreal neighbourhoods into safer, warmer places, with active transportation and ease of traffic, and overall better quality of life. They approached this project through a three-planning process – understanding the issues and limitations, exploring the possible development solutions, and creating a vision for the neighbourhood. Citizen participation was promoted by providing relevant data like statistics, surveys, plans, knowledge of best practices, etc. And the citizens and stakeholders were encouraged to contribute.
The project brought about positive sustainable development to the neighbourhoods and saw hundreds of active participants.
But participatory planning and development can also be implemented on a larger scale. In Indonesia, it is the national government that is driving citizen involved development.
Earlier in Indonesia the planning development process was highly bureaucratic. After reforms to the process in the late 1990’s, it was opened up to the people, making development more inclusive. The objective behind this shift was to make governance transparent, accountable and effective, and promote active citizenship. Musrenbang (participatory planning and budgeting) was first launched in 2000 as a pilot project in two cities and one municipality. After observing fairly positive results Musrenbang was implemented across Indonesia. The process is applied broadly in the same way with a similar approach. But from city to city the method varies depending on the local context and requirement. The fundamental process includes identifying cities for Musrenbang, informing and inviting the citizens, setting up participatory forums to understand the priorities, discussing the various proposals based on the needs, reviewing the proposals, and gaining approval from the local bodies. Since Musrenbang is led by the national government, many innovations and steps are taken to improve the functionality and effectiveness. For example, an E-Musrenbang website was introduced that not only provided information, but also showed the list of proposals being made. Even the challenges with participatory budgeting were tackled in various ways. One method was giving the community a block grant, a small amount of the budget, allowing the people to decide how to utilize it to develop their neighbourhood. This mechanism helped empower the citizens and improved the confidence in the government. Another method is Indicative Budget Ceiling, which is a predetermined budget set for a certain district. The community is informed of the ceiling before the participatory forum begins. This helps keep the discussions and proposals realistic and prioritizing the immediate needs.
In spite of these efforts, both top-down and bottom-up, there have been proposals that did not reach fruition. One of the reasons is that some of the proposals were not in synchrony with the greater vision of development. Due to lack of awareness and knowledge many participants could not recognize the priorities and immediate need. Another reason is the lack of clarity in the procedure after the Musrenbang. Sometimes after the approval of the proposal, it simply fizzles away with time due to inaction. Apart from these roadblocks, the participatory process has been making slow and steady change.
The Epworth upgrading in Zimbabwe is another example of development through the participatory approach. Epworth is one of the largest informal settlements in Zimbabwe. And the task of upgrading it through the involvement of the communities has been taken up by Dialogue on Shelter for the Homeless in Zimbabwe Trust. The objective is to formalize the settlement by in-situ slum upgrading and with as little disruption as possible, through the process of community engagement. What makes this project interesting is the use of GIS for participatory mapping. With the help of GIS systems the locals are encouraged to map their areas. The members from the Epworth Local Board help the locals or educate them on how to use these maps. Some of the aspects taken into account are the orientation of buildings, existing physical conditions, density of settlements, socio-economic situation, etc. The map also allows the community to develop a proposed infrastructure layout that superimposes on the existing scenario to keep disruption at minimum.
The Epworth project is still underway. But the success of this approach will see it being replicated in other parts of Zimbabwe as well.
Participatory planning, as utopian is it may seem in theory, is not all hunky-dory in practice. Having said that, in the broader spectrum, the struggle and effort is worth it because it takes into account the best interests of all the stakeholders. And this will only lead to relevant and sustainable development in the long run.