Q&A: Citizen participation in planning − from the neighbourhood to the city

What is the current state of knowledge on making planning more genuinely inclusive? A panel of urban experts answer questions from a recent webinar that discussed examples and theories of participatory planning from around the world.

Article, 10 December 2021

On 24 November, IIED hosted an online discussion about urban planning, particularly in informal settlements. In the absence of basic services guaranteed by the state, many informal settlement residents have formed their own networks for improving living conditions and shaping their environments.

Following the release of a special issue of Environment and Urbanization on participatory planning, moderator Diana Mitlin convened an all-female panel of contributors to the special issue. These were Vanesa Castán Broto (VCB) and Sally Cawood of the University of Sheffield; Catalina Ortiz of University College London; Zlata Vuksanović-Macura of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts; Taru Silvonen (TS) of the University of Bristol; Ana Paula Pimentel Walker of the University of Michigan; and Beatrice De Carli (BDC) of London Metropolitan University.

Here, the contributors address some key questions raised by the webinar’s attendees:

Q: What would you say are the most significant barriers to participation in your focus contexts, from both the formal government and informal settlement perspective? 

VCB: From my perspective the main barrier to participation is the persistence of epistemic injustice in participatory contexts. In formal processes, particularly, institutional representatives distrust knowledge that does not come from officially sanctioned experts. There is a need to: 1) demystify urban development knowledge; and 2) understand how technical knowledge can work together with experiential knowledge.  

TS: Based on my research in Mexico City, one of the main barriers is the size of the city and the distinctive characteristics of different boroughs. Citizen participation structures that work in more established boroughs are unlikely to be appropriate in boroughs where informal urbanisation is more recent. 

SC: In the context where I work (Dhaka, Bangladesh), there are barriers to certain types of participation, but not all. For example, while community-based participation in water and sanitation projects is normalised and encouraged by NGOs, donors and government authorities, social mobilisation around land, housing or resource distribution is highly contested, and difficult to scale up.

The historically dominant role of the development sector in delivering services for 'the poor', and an increasingly powerful state means that scaling up participation from the settlement to the city or national level is challenging, but not impossible.

We need to shift how we think about participation, and always remember who is left (or pushed) out of these processes in NGO-led, government-led or 'community-led' modes. (Short-term tenants, for example, are often sidelined in participatory processes.)  

View of Mexico City (Photo: Lui Piquee via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Q: Have any of the presenters encountered more willingness from formal or informal stakeholders to engage in disaster mitigation planning and intervention when hazards impact formal and informal residents alike? 

SC: While I believe cross-class and formal-informal alliances are possible in this space, the burdens and impacts of disasters still fall disproportionately on the most marginalised in society, who are often excluded from such mitigation or planning processes, or subject to highly top-down, technocratic interventions.

Whether we talk of cyclones, waterlogging, heat stress, flooding, heavy rain or water insecurity, the impacts are most acutely felt by those with fewer resources or choices to respond and adapt.

What are the incentives for authorities or middle-upper class groups to form alliances and address issues most acutely felt 'by others'? Why are resources not allocated to those who need it most? Exploring these questions is extremely important in the context of climate-related hazards and greater intensity of disasters.  

Q: Have you come across good examples of youth or child participation? 

VCB: The first example that comes to my mind is Modesta Alozie’s work on violence against youth in Nigeria’s Niger Delta. It is an example of how lack of participation and lack of voice engender conflict. Jordana Ramalho has been working on violence against girls; her work on gendered resilience could be useful.  

TS: Youth and child participation is a central part of the Child Friendly Cities initiative, which has been implemented in various ways across the world. Each city evaluates the measures they have implemented. 

BDC: Catalytic Action, in partnership with UNICEF and UN-Habitat, have recently published a handbook on co-designing built interventions with children affected by displacement (DeCID), which includes links and references to many examples and reports.

This online event reflected on the needs and challenges of citizen participation in the planning and development of informal settlements

Q: How do we deal with discrimination in bringing social and sexual differences on board?

VCB: In my paper on queering participatory planning, I argue that there are well known strategies, particularly those involving legal struggles, and all those are very important. However, queer theory also explains that discrimination also happens in intangible, undefined moments of everyday experiences, and it is important to challenge those forms of discrimination.

Many small gestures may help to do that, including how we frame the participatory process and whether we include heteronormative assumptions in its design.  

Q: How can continuity of community engagement and participation be ensured beyond ‘projects’? 

TS: The level of participation fluctuates over time as needs and circumstances change. Preparedness to take part is embedded in local experiences of collectivism and a shared sense of responsibility. This culture of collectivism is place-based and local. The potential for enhancing continuity in this sense lies in planning ‘projects’ around local experiences of collectivism.

SC: In my work on participation in community-based organisations in Bangladesh, I’ve seen the 'tyranny of participation' (in the short-term NGO and donor project sense). But also found evidence of 'scaling through' whereby leaders and members of participatory initiatives carry learnings and experiences beyond the project to new initiatives, and into their everyday lives.

However, the extent to which projects create lasting, sustainable change, and incorporate the voices of those commonly excluded in participatory processes, remains unclear.

Projects, by their very nature, are often too short-sighted and funding is bound, meaning that the foundations for more sustainable participatory processes and outcomes are often not laid, or simply uprooted and replaced by the next ‘project’ with a different mandate.  

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.