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Environment / Climate change

In the coming urban era, engaging people in planning will be a vast and complex challenge

For the past 16 years, I’ve spent a large proportion of my evenings and weekends standing in streets, car parks, libraries, churches, community halls and classrooms around the capital talking about architecture with strangers.

In brief, I work in “community engagement”.

Sometimes conversations are positive, exploring different possible futures using models, scenarios, games and experiments. At other times they are tense.

People voice concerns about the scale and rate of development, the impact on their lives or the perceived failure of “the council” to attend to real local needs. But whatever the tone, the outcome – as long as findings are taken seriously – is always better than it would have been without this interaction.

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And yet, in recent years, engagement has had an increasingly bad reputation. Clients and architects bemoan the NIMBYish, narrow-minded, anti-development mindset of those who take part – labelled ‘usual suspects’ as if not to be trusted – and the compromised nature of outcomes.

Participants express frustration at the ‘token’ or ‘sham’ nature of these exercises. I rarely start a project without someone bitterly saying: “This is just for show. It’s all a done deal.”

And I agree, if engagement continues to be practised in its most popular, insidious forms: as PR to ‘sell’ a scheme, as a well-intentioned pink fluffy activity happening in its own bubble, pacifying and entertaining while the serious business of delivery goes on elsewhere, or as a mindless ‘Have Your Say’ Post-it opinion-gathering, positioning citizens as children whose task it is to voice a view devoid of context and then have a strop when this fails to make an impact.

Such approaches undermine the possibility of intelligent, citizen-led debate about the way in which we, the people, produce our urban environment and guide the evolution of our city.

Engagement as politics

Popular engagement in the production of the built environment is a form of politics, and can only be carried out effectively if emphatically understood, designed and managed as such.

Good community engagement, perhaps better understood as ‘citizen participation’, is the process of using appropriate methods and tools to explore, negotiate and make accountable the question of “Who gets what, when, and how?” – to use political scientist Harold Laswell’s famous definition of politics.

These politics play out at the level of the project itself, in the decisions that are taken in the shaping of a proposal, whether master-planning a district, inserting a new block in an existing neighbourhood, or determining whether – and how – to redevelop an existing housing estate.

Redevelop this, I dare you. Image: Arpingstone

But through the cumulative decision-making impact of multiple projects, they also play out at the level of the neighbourhood and then of the city itself. Development projects have political, social and economic repercussions beyond their ‘red lines’. Participants inevitably bring that understanding with them to engagement events.

Engagement and the planning system

To an extent, decisions about the city’s built environment are taken through the policy aspects, and then implemented through the development control aspects, of the planning system – a pillar of our established system of representative democracy. Since the Skeffington Report of 1969, the public has the opportunity to inform that policy, as well as to comment on, and object to, applications once submitted.

So why, one might ask, should one want to bring more complication and debate into it? The voice of ‘the people’ is already fairly represented.

The first response is well rehearsed. Setting aside ethical or political considerations, it is now generally accepted that users or inhabitants have particular experience or knowledge that cannot be replicated by outside ‘experts’, leading to better more locally-specific place-making, and that involvement in the production of the built environment creates beneficial ‘ownership’ of outcomes – the ‘good citizen’ argument – leading to more sustainable place-making.

It makes a good view, but is it good place-making? Image: Mattbuck

Another common argument is that although the planning system may work well in principle, in practice things are less satisfactory. Local authorities do not currently have the resources to really consider the nuanced implications of possible developments in specific areas, or to engage with the granular detail of existing places.

The system is also not responsive enough to the capital’s pace of change. Innovations in neighbourhood planning (a form of strategic localised community engagement led by the community itself and introduced by the 2011 Localism Act), and ‘big’ or ‘digital’ data, may help meet these challenges. But neither, as yet, are well established or, in the case of the former, adequately resourced.

Engagement as urban democracy

Far more important are the political and ethical arguments:

1. Community engagement events, done well, are some of the few ‘official’ places, in London in 2017, where active popular participation in debate and deliberation about the future of the city takes place in an accessible way and – at the level of the project at least – can have some direct impact. They need to be supported as such.

We have a lack of engaging political forums available to us as citizens, particularly as resources to fund community councils or similar recede, leading people to turn to direct action or disillusionment and apathy instead.

And yet, in my work, I encounter increasing desire for such spaces. People know or sense that a healthy democracy needs to be practised, not just assumed, for it to stay alive and continue to evolve, and that evolving democracy needs to be negotiated and tested in public spaces. And people want to make use of the new types and quantities of information, knowledge and connectivity at their disposal to participate in it.

2. Citizens have a “right to the city” and to make the city… Philosopher-sociologist Henri Lefebvre argues that those who permanently inhabit a city, and who use and produce its spaces through their activity and labour on a daily basis, no matter their origin, have more rights to participate in decisions about its ongoing development than those who simply own land or property there – or who, as jet-setters, glide through periodically.

Lefebvre is adamant that the “right to the city” is not just about the right to be in the city and not be displaced to the edges, but the right to continue to shape the city – to appropriate its spaces – and to physically enjoy it, both through one’s everyday life and culture, and through political activity.

3. …And it is time they were supported in doing so, to the benefit of the city (understood as the sum of its people and not the size of its coffers), and to the benefit of a functioning, evolving democracy.


Conversations I have every day suggest that people do not feel adequately represented by the current system of decision-making about the city or, often, the values that appear to underpin it. Engagement at project level becomes an opportunity to voice that. For what is the point in pooling your knowledge – the ‘better places’ argument – if, in the long run, you, your community or your children will be unable to afford to live in the better place that is created?

In recent years, I have witnessed a shift in the questions asked, combined with refusal to accept the status quo. London’s citizens – and not just the ‘usual suspects’ – actively want to discuss the challenges that the city faces, and to deliberate together. It can be bewildering when debate about capital-wide development overruns your modest event, spilling well beyond the red line of the site boundary. But it’s also thrilling. And necessary.

Engagement with questions of value

On the whole, those raising difficult questions at events look at issues holistically and long-term. They are thinking about how change happens and the localised implications. They don’t necessarily have the right answers – none of us do, individually, however ‘expert’ we are – or agree with each other about what needs to happen, but they are asking the right questions.

Underlying that questioning is a huge ambiguity about which values – and whose interests – are driving London’s evolution. There is a notable vagueness about this in documents such as The London Plan, the capital’s overarching spatial strategy.

Hyper-vague public documents can’t account for the dubious Walkie Talkie. Image: Kloniwotski

It states repeatedly, for example, the reassuring objective of meeting the “needs and aspirations” of “all Londoners”. At the same time, it presents economic growth as a primary objective. Two assumptions appear implicit: that those aims are compatible and that there is no positive alternative to growth. Both could be challenged.

As geographer Doreen Massey notes, the real challenge we face in London is not the commonly cited one that “London is a successful city… but there are still great areas of poverty and exclusion”, but rather that “London is a successful city and partly as a result of the terms of that success there are still great areas of poverty and exclusion”.

Based on the current trajectory, with rising land values, less and less genuinely affordable housing, and policies such as the Bedroom Tax, many people who are currently Londoners might not be so in five years time – and not out of choice. London’s citizens may not express their concerns in the same language as Massey, but they have a sense that something is out of joint.

Engagement as experiment lab

Good community engagement not only makes space for problems with the current system to be articulated, but – more importantly – offers a testing ground for a different way of doing politics, one with potential implications not just for the democracy of development, but for that of the city. One that is more deliberative and participative, that learns and questions from the bottom up, and that uses intelligent mechanisms to evaluate and debate future scenarios.

This is not about replacing our current representative democracy, as epitomised by the planning system, but offering a complement to it. Not every citizen has the time or interest to be involved in every decision. And there will always be a need, in a progressive society, to think about the “right to the city” of those who are not yet here: the unborn, or future migrants. This requires an interplay between local, city-wide and national planning, which perhaps inevitably leads to some kind of delegate structure, with decision-making flowing upwards and downwards.

However, good engagement practice, particularly in its emphasis on accountability of decision-making structures and processes (what decisions have already been taken, will need to be taken, when, by whom, and on what basis), has much to offer as an exemplar for a reinvigorated approach to spatial politics, and to politics more broadly. As a minimum, it can generate vital data to inform deliberative, evidence-based and visibly ‘fair’ decision-making either by community delegates or by those holding ultimate decision-making power. More ambitiously, it can suggest quite different models of plan-making and governance, both at the level of the project and at that of the city.

Models of engagement

So, what forms might those models take?

A different kind of London Plan? Good engagement can generate good evidence-based plans through collaborative processes, replacing traditional consultation and lobbying as the dominant means of inputting to policy. The work of informal alliance Just Space is inspiring here, holding community conferences to “develop ideas about what a London Plan would be like if it were to prioritise — or at least protect — the interests of its citizens, its environment and the real economies in which we meet each other’s needs.”

The GLA’s current A City For All Londoners workshop and forum activity is an interesting if modest step in the right direction. Future plan-making could begin with a proactive, collaborative, fully public enquiry into what London is, who it is for, what it could be, and how we might get there.

I feel uncomfortable. Image: Arpingstone

From agreed values, as opposed to simply ‘objectives’, could come priorities and policies, commitments and pledges. Decisions and priorities could be negotiated and bargained between different interest groups, revealing and celebrating the workings and fault lines of democracy. This would lead to outcomes that, although not necessarily pleasing everyone in every aspect, could be seen to be reasoned and fair, based on an explicitly articulated value system.

Experiments with Popular Planning? The Popular Planning Unit (PPU) was an early 1980s experiment, led by the Greater London Council (GLC). It tried to rebalance the relationship between strategic economic planning and localised decision-making, and to make explicit the links between economic and spatial development.

Supported and resourced (but not directed) by public servants at the GLC, communities would draw on “practical and tacit knowledge” acquired through lived experience (work, home, community, relationships) in order to debate and determine for themselves the direction of change affecting them. This was tested most explicitly in the preparation of a “People’s Plan” for the post-industrial Docklands, countering the wholesale redevelopment mooted by central government. Although it lost at the public enquiry stage, it remains significant for its attempt to restructure relationships between citizens, politicians and experts.

Or… look to Ecuador? In 2007, Ecuador, a whole country, did something fascinating. It started to draw up a National Plan for Good Living, now in its second 2013-2017 iteration. This document, produced in participation with its population, rejects the dominant development model (“three decades of neoliberalism”) and replaces it with a set of values about sustainable wellbeing and interconnectedness drawn partly from the country’s indigenous past.

Alongside the plan’s ongoing evolution runs a research project that seeks to “remake the roots of Ecuador’s economy, setting off a transition into a society of free and open knowledge”. The idea is that the country will transition towards an “open commons knowledge-based” or “good knowledge” society, supporting it in its move away from “mindless accumulative economic growth”.

Engagement with the future

It is arguable that, despite many statements of intent, little has really changed since 1947, when our current planning system – regarding who takes decisions, and how, about the city’s evolution – fundamentally came into being. This has consistently been determined on behalf of the wider populace by an elite, whether aristocratic, technocratic, political or economic. Money, and traditional forms of knowledge and power, talk.

Planning needs more than just ‘let’s make it pretty like the old days’. Image: D Williams

One might even argue that, compared to 1947, the democratic power of the ‘public interest’ has been reduced within spatial decision-making. ‘Confidentiality’ on key aspects of development projects is now a norm for major public sector regeneration schemes – due to reliance on private sector partners who do not wish to put the details of financing on display, or to the imperatives of risk management.

And yet, while this endures, and while participation in traditional representative democracy may have dropped, the British public in general – as the 2006 Joseph Rowntree Trust Power Enquiry reported – is better educated, less deferential, more demanding and exposed to a broader range of cultural influences. This still-relevant investigation asserts that: “When participation meets the expectations of today’s citizen, those citizens will get involved.”

If those of us who govern truly want to represent the interests of all of the rest of us, then there is no excuse not to get on with it, and to draw on the intelligent models we have for inspiration.

This is an extract from Making Good: Shaping Places for People, a journal published by Centre for London and supported by Lendlease. The full collection of essays are available here.
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.