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Urbanisation

Communities shaping their built environment - Part 1: Introduction to participatory planning

Dr Nader Naderpajouh is a Senior Lecturer at RMIT University and Alison Whitten is Sustainable and Resilient Precincts Lead at the City of Melbourne. They are also the lead authors of the RICS Research Trust paper Governance of participatory planning for resilient communities, together with Bilal Ayub and Rita Peihua Zhang (of RMIT), and Sebastian Fastenrath and Lars Coenen (of the University of Melbourne). We spoke to them about participatory planning practice, and how we can engage with local communities to create a resilient, inclusive, and liveable built environment.

Fabrizio Varriale
12 April 2021

What is participatory planning, how did it start, and what issues does it aim to address?

Dr Nader Naderpajouh: It started from the interest for more input from communities and other stakeholders in the planning process. We try to encourage broader input in the governance and decision-making system, particularly from those with more implicit and contextual knowledge of the problem. This includes people who will be using the output of the project, indigenous communities, and any stakeholder that might not naturally have access to the decision-making process and enough power to impact it. It’s a process to expose, discuss, and revise the decisions related to the creation of the built environment.

Alison Whitten: The primary focus has been involving communities who are directly impacted by a project or a planning process. Those who wouldn't have been part of conventional top-down planning in previous eras. Jane Jacobs is a great example from history. In the 1950s and 1960s, she was very active in building community awareness and response to planning issues that had significant impact on neighbourhoods in New York City. Her work marked a shift from the top-down planning approach that had been taken previously. That shift opened up the idea of doing projects with communities instead of to them. It makes a difference to getting their buy-in and building trust.

Are there essential features that every participatory approach should have?

AW: One important feature is the inclusion of key segments of the community impacted by a project. Some think that representation in the group should be based on the statistical makeup of the community. Others think that diverse groups’ voices need to be heard, even if they come from a relatively small part of the population. The scope of engagement and decision-making needs to be clear, so that participants understand where their voices can have influence. The process needs to be truly participatory and not just tokenistic. Whoever is leading the process must be very clear how the input from participants will be used to inform decision-making.

NN: In reality, decisions are shaped within the existing power structure in the network of stakeholders. With participatory planning, we want to create a structure so that the stakeholders who have less power also find a channel for some impact on decisions. We need to be open minded and inclusive, and we need to create accessibility. Even if we cannot fully enable stakeholders with less power to impact upon decisions, we can at least create venues for some degree of impact.

How has participatory planning evolved since is beginnings, and how does it relate to the concepts of social value, social resilience, and urban resilience?

NN: It is getting more structured. There are guiding frameworks like the IAP2 framework. But as with other approaches, it can also be misused, becoming more of a marketing instrument or reflection of a political agenda. In terms of resilience, participatory planning creates a polycentric governance structure; a wide range of actors can impact the decisions, making it a resilient governance and decision-making system. When it comes to resilience of the outcome and the built environment, we should consider ‘resilience of what, to what?’ Participatory planning can improve resilience in some dimensions, such as social cohesion within communities. It can also reduce resilience in some other dimensions, such as the complexity of projects themselves.

Can you say more about the tangible benefits of participatory planning as well as its potential drawbacks?

AW: When participatory planning becomes more mainstream, there are increased expectations from communities about engaging with decision-making, which has implications for how projects are managed. But it remains valuable when we think about resilience from a community standpoint. A participatory process generates better built outcomes because it results in a solution that's more reflective of diverse needs and perspectives. In addition, undergoing a participatory process provides an opportunity for the community to get to know one another and build trust, especially if it is a relatively new community. That's important. Going through that shared experience builds social cohesion and prepares communities for difficult times or shock events. It can result in stronger social bonds as well as better built outcomes.

When participatory planning becomes more mainstream, there are increased expectations from communities about engaging with decision-making, which has implications for how projects are managed. But it remains valuable when we think about resilience from a community standpoint. A participatory process generates better built outcomes because it results in a solution that's more reflective of diverse needs and perspectives.

Alison Whitten
Sustainable and Resilient Precincts Lead at the City of Melbourne

NN: When it comes to shocks and stressors, it's not only the built environment that is helping us to recover. With participatory planning, we create our built environment through a decentralised decision-making process – one that also creates social capital. This is the most prominent benefit in my view, as it creates a balance by integrating social capital and built environment capital. In terms of drawbacks, participatory planning is a long and complex process, so it requires more resources. There are also some potential structural issues. For example, the louder voices in a community are usually the most heard. There might be a need to balance these voices by seeking and identifying which voices are missing and how can they be heard.

AW: When a project is done, there's often a cost-benefit analysis process that's undertaken, and it's very difficult to incorporate intangible costs or benefits that come to communities. Decision-making driven by cost-benefit analysis is more quantitative than qualitative in nature and doesn't fully account for localised impact. How do we account for the intrinsic benefits to the community that a project has? When you're trying to do that, resilience is a tricky thing. It's difficult to assess the resilience value of any particular decision until after your resilience has been tested. Pre-emptively anticipating the benefits and costs saved over time may be challenging. This is why, through our resilience lens, we're still working through how to quantify and assess this. We are starting to see some quantification of savings over time for each dollar spent on resilience-building initiatives. However, its sometimes difficult to make the business case for this type of long-term investment when immediate needs seem more pressing.

Who is usually initiating a participatory planning process?

AW: In Australia it is typically led by government. There are formalised processes embedded in state and local government planning. These stipulate the mechanisms and time for the community to provide input on particular projects. The private development sector is progressing in this space. Through our research and the Resilient Communities projects, we have seen a willingness and energy from developers to be more proactive in working with residents. The shift that needs to occur, and is starting to occur, is one towards a more inclusive participation that's not just focused on marketing and sales. It's been important for government to provide a foundation for the requirements related to participation. There have also been changes to local government laws in the last year, requiring councils to develop new engagement policies that are more inclusive and deliberative. There's a real emphasis on community voices being heard in the planning process more fully, which is a very exciting prospect.

When it comes to shocks and stressors, it's not only the built environment that is helping us to recover. With participatory planning, we create our built environment through a decentralised decision-making process – one that also creates social capital. This is the most prominent benefit in my view, as it creates a balance by integrating social capital and built environment capital.

Dr Nader Naderpajouh
Senior Lecturer at RMIT University

NN: We have examples where the landowner was the main driver for participatory planning. We also have an example where the community was the main driver, and this is the essence of it, allowing the process to start in multiple ways. There is also a drawback: when we create such flexibility, efficiency might be compromised. If I play the devil's advocate from the developers’ perspective, sometimes technically it's just not feasible to meet the requests expressed by the community. That is also a challenge, as we need to create a very transparent process. One where expectations are clearly described, and communities don’t get frustrated when there is no feasible solution to their requests.

How scalable is participatory planning, what are its limits, and when does a local planning issue becomes a wider political and/or economic issue?

AW: There are economic and political implications to most projects regardless of the scale. It's just a question of the relative balance of influence, and the role of the community in decision-making.

NN: It depends on how much we can handle complexity in the decision-making process. We can scale it as far as we can get resources for a more complex process. Sometimes we need to build faster and more efficiently, and in these cases participatory planning might increase the required time and resources. There's a trade-off between the depth of engagement and the required resources. It differs depending on the scale of a project. Larger projects may have an opportunity for the community to provide written responses and feedback, but the ability to co-design and start with a community-led approach is often lost. When large infrastructure projects are presented by the government, the room for participation is much more limited than if it were a local project. Particularly where the community has initiated and expressed the need for the project.

  • The second part of our conversation with Nader and Alison will focus on the use of participatory planning in Australia to address local challenges.