Often urban planning decisions are made by a select few. Some planning processes, such as public meetings or online comment petitions can prove difficult to get participation from everyone who will be impacted, especially those who feel as if there is no way for their voice to be heard, the poor, the disenfranchised, the fearful. One of the events during the WeMakeThe.City festival discussed the need for more diverse participation and inclusive communication of the needs of citizens within urban planning. A look back by special reporter Derrek Clarke.
The Designing Change conference started off with professor of the University of Miami School of Architecture Eric Firley. He recently published a book on his research into the changing nature of urban design over the past forty years. The book, Designing Change, takes a deep dive into the practice of urban design as experienced through 12 leading practitioners from across three continents. Firley’s research aim is to foster cross cultural conversation and knowledge sharing of the different aspects of urban design. The WeMakethe.City 2019 talk to promote Professor Firley’s book did just that by fostering a lively back and forth discussion between the professor, his three urban design guests and the audience of citizens, architects and urbanists.
One thing everyone agreed on is that we need more diverse participation and inclusive communication of the needs of citizens within urban planning. As Regula Luscher, the Head of the Planning and Building Department of Berlin stated:
“Participation is about being able to reach target groups. This is very difficult to do and will impact the use of technology in urban development.”
Often urban planning decisions are made by a select few. Some planning processes, such as public meetings or online comment petitions can prove difficult to get participation from everyone who will be impacted, especially those who feel as if there is no way for their voice to be heard, the poor, the disenfranchised, the fearful. It isn’t to say, that achieving greater participation and hearing the concerns of impacted citizens is impossible. Amsterdam has proved to be a fertile experiment ground for participatory urban planning.
Both Tom Schaap, Senior Urbanist for the City of Amsterdam and Paola Vigano, Head of the Laboratory of Urbanism at the Technical University of Lausanne referenced Amsterdam as a classic model of what can be achieved through active community participation. As Tom explained, “Amsterdam is a great example to the EU and to the world with its development into a bike centred city. It didn’t happen overnight but involved lots of participation. It changed street by street and neighbourhood by neighbourhood”.
A Question Of Technology And The Smart City
Current technologies, mainly smartphones and low-cost sensors may hold the keys to more inclusive participation in urban development projects. Sensors can be used to track traffic patterns and public use of space while smartphone apps can be used to communicate with disenfranchised citizens to enable them to participate in the planning process.
However, the use of these technologies pose many questions around personal privacy and what secondary uses the collected data will be subjected to. Use of these solutions may drive citizen communication and participation in the process lower, or worse; mire the whole process in endless arguments. The Canadian city of Toronto is experiencing just this as it slowly tries to progress through the planning of Google's Sidewalk Labs’ waterfront development. Progress on this proposed smart city development has slowed because of discussions about the ownership and use of the data that will be at the core of the development’s smart city operations.
This is not to say that technology is bad and can’t serve a purpose when it comes to increasing participation in urban development, it can. To be useful, technology has to balance participation enablement with protecting the personal freedoms of the community as a whole.
Urban Planning Is The Chance To Dream At The Scale Of The City
A personal freedom cherished by all is the freedom of mobility. Whether a smart city or not, no urban development project can be discussed without addressing the topic of getting from one place to another. As Regula states, “In every participation project traffic is always the question. How to move the people is always a central idea.” History bears witness to this through the grand boulevards of Baron Hausmann in 1800s Paris or the many public works projects of Robert Moses in mid-20th Century New York City. Throughout history, traffic management and the need for better infrastructure to deal with congestion has been a central component of many urban development strategies. This focus on transportation continues today in cities such as present-day Amsterdam where communities are pushing for less use of personal vehicles and greater use of cycling, pedestrian ways and potential mobility-as-a-service options.
Urbanist Paola Vigano proposes another solution to increasing urban density and transportation congestion. She asks: “Why have we forgotten about living across the land and continue to focus on the urban area? Why continue to densify the city, which pushes out the people who already live there?”. Paola believes we should not neglect satellite cities. These should be developed as diverse places to live, play and work with high-speed connections to larger urban centers. Paola proposes this experiment to resolve urban congestion while also addressing the plight of rural areas suffering from population drain.
Moving Forward Through Experimentation
“If we can’t do experiments, then we can’t make the future” states Regula Luscher as she aptly sums up the combined views of the panellists and the audience in attendance at this talk. In the end, we must experiment to resolve urban development challenges. Whether the topic is how to address the challenge of community participation, immigration, migration, transportation or crisis such as climate change – the answer is always “we have to experiment and try out different solutions”.
What works in one city may not directly translate into a successful initiative in another city. We have to listen to communities, get their participation and collectively experiment until we have working solutions.
Photos and text: Derrek Clarke