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Martin Laplante

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Tue, 06 Dec 2005

Community Planning - are citizens powerless?

When talking to people in my community about community planning, the word that keeps on coming up is "powerless". Those who have experienced it from the community point of view often refer to municipal urban planners as the enemy. Is this just a feature of the city where I live, or is there a better way out there to make citizens feel like they have a stake in what their community will look like.

A search of Google confirms this the query "community planning powerless" finds 1,270,000 pages. Even '"community planning" powerless' finds nearly 10,000. The problem seems to be widespread.

There are several reasons for this feeling of powerlessness. Community planning requires the involvement of several groups, some of which have a strong economic interest at stake or have access to the major tools required to promote one particular point of view: money, legal resources, and some continuity in dealing with planning issues in the long term. Community members and community groups tend to have few of these tools. Their concerns and suggestions are easy to dismiss as unschooled even when they have the best insight into community needs and liveability.

There is a very real danger in professional urban planners believing in their own infallibility. It is easy to look at the economic interests of landowner, the natural conservatism of community groups that tend to resist change, and the political motivations of elected officials, and to decide that only staff urban planners have no agenda.

When urban planners take on a role other than engaging the community and assisting them in formulating and understanding their planning choices, they do not provide the value added that justifies their being paid out of the common purse.

"But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."
"It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of The Leopard'."
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Most planning processes have some sort of community consultation, which ranges from the Arthur Dent version above to a veto given to neighbours. The degree of consultation and the extent to which the spirit of this consultation is respected is mostly a matter of the professional conscience of the urban planner charged with this task.

Having a warm body from the planning office take notes as community members speak and then declaring that consulation has taken place is outwardly very similar to real consultation, but much less effort.

There are two types of community apathy: one is the normal laziness, that assumes that someone else is looking after community interests. The other is more like burnout; the realization that you can't fight city hall without making it a full-time job and raising a lot of money.

I am working on a community planning process where the community association is being given money with which to hire their own urban planning firm to represent their interests and help them formulate their position. I think this is essential, though expensive, but why can't city planning staff routinely do this?

A modest proposal would be ostracism in the ancient Greek sense. Every year, Athenians used to send a public official into exile with a secret vote, written on an ostrakon. The politicians that strike citizens as undemocratic could be sent packing. I think urban planning officials should be sent on sabbatical or early retirement through a popular vote. It becomes obvious to the communities they deal with which ones think their own opinions are more valuable than engaging the community.

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