Impossible to collaborate with communities?
Convincing a crowd of planners, academics, municipal employees and a sample of community organisations from the Dublin region that there are meaningful and effective ways to involve communities in planning processes.
One of the most influential politicians that has left his (not by everyone appreciated) mark on countless neighborhoods in the city of Brussels, Charles Picqué, recently told us: “Of course you can’t do things anymore like we did in the 70s and 80s. Today you have to talk to the people before you redo a square or build a new tramline. But this really complicates everything…”
Most planners – and decision makers – would agree that involving communities into planning processes has become necessary. Residents, community organisations and other local actors hold precious knowledge about places and their potential. This knowledge should be incorporated in urban programs to make them more authentic, sensible and realistic. Engaging in a dialogue with communities can also improve mutual understanding about the change that a project brings, thereby alleviating tensions and conflicts. But while all this sounds great, so far planners and community actors lack appropriate tools for collaborating efficiently and meaningfully with each other – often efforts aimed at community involvement lead to participation fatigue, nerver-ending discussions and eventually frustration on all sides. Benoît Moritz, a French urbanist who leads a very succesful office in Belgium, commented on this problem in a recent interview: “There are already many political and economic actors in every big urban project, and it is an enormous challenge for us to find a consensus between them and still do a nice job as planner. If I start to talk to all the other actors that are around things really become quite impossible…”
Dublin, Wood Quay Venue, September 6, early afternoon. Collaborating Communities, a conference and participatory workshop organized by TURAS as a closing event to their five-year journey. The room holds a diverse crowd of around sixty people including planners, academics, artists, practitioners from many disciplines, staff from Dublin City Council and a sample of community organizations from the Dublin region. Our job is to convince them that there are meaningful and effective ways to involve communities early in planning processes – in two hours.
We want to do this with a simulation exercise that takes the group in fast-forward mode through the Transversal Planning process. Using the backdrop of a fictive case (the “Lakeshore” site of 20 hectares with industrial legacy lies in the vicinity of a vibrant metropolis and is earmarked for regeneration…), we invite the participants to take on the roles of different types of communities: suddenly the room is filled with asset managers, financial agencies, corner shop entrepreneurs, municipal officers, environmental experts and members of the residential community (refer to the Penta-helix) – all discussing their views on the same site. The livelihood of the conversations that soon emerge makes us doubt whether we are really talking about a fictive site…
One of the central points of our approach to Transveral Planning is to provide a structure, a series of steps so that lively discussions are oriented towards results. This involves collecting opinions and input in a way that it can be used effectively further down the line. In Dublin, we showcase this advantage by inviting each community in our fictive case to fill out the “Back to the future” tool, a simple way to explore collective perspectives with respect to a given site. The tool aims to tap into personal feelings and attitudes, both in the future and the past (we call them “trauma”, “nostalgia”, “hopes” and “fears”). The exercice seems to work in our simulation workshop in Dublin: thanks to the input of the different communities, the site is soon turning into a place, with its specific identity and meaning.
Interesting as it may be, teasing out the communities’ values and attitudes towards a site is not an end in itself. We use this information, collected in a harmonised and accesible format, to confront each group with the perspective of the other communities. This is the “Conversation” step of the Transversal Planning process (see The Dialectic tool) . Here we ask each group to identify tensions and complementarities between their own perspective on the site and those expressed by others. In a real-world project, this information – again collected in harmonised templates – is extremely precious for planners and developers as it allows to anticipate tensions and exploit complementarities very early in the planning process – when change is still possible and affordable.
The simulation workshop in Dublin culminates with each community creating a poster about “their” project for the site. We find it striking to see how these posters (see The Poster tool) put different emphasis on common issues such as scale, sustainability and inclusiveness. For instance, the group of residents decides to enlarge the scope of the project from “Lakeshore” to “Greater Lakeshore”. In a real case such a change would probably not be very expensive or complicated to implement, but for the residential community it could make a great (Greater!) difference…
The OSMOS network would like to thank Roisin Byrne, Myles Farrell and Johanna Varghese for providing efficient and enjoyable help in setting up this workshop. We are also indebted to the many TURAS experts that facilitated the simulation exercise – a collaboration that we are eager to reproduce in our work on other sites and projects.