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Collaborative planning - the next step in democracy or a trap for populism?

Date:17 March 2021
Author:Ido Marom & Jort de Vries
The Death of Socrates - Jacques-Louis David (1787)
The Death of Socrates - Jacques-Louis David (1787)

The 20th century discourse on communicative rationality gave rise to a new paradigm in planning theory - the communicative (collaborative) paradigm. It calls for the breaking of scientific objectivism and building one based on agreement between individuals reached through free and open discourse. Therefore, Planners should cultivate community networks, educate citizens, provide access to information and encourage citizen’s review of plans. But what is the political future of this approach? The following post presents two opposite views.

Within the collaborative planning paradigm, the facilitation of actor coalitions, creation of a public discourse, and ensuring the supremacy of good arguments are seen as the best way to plan space. The development of a promising form of local direct democracy provides for all of the factors above: Participation budgets.

On the 31st of October 2004, the inhabitants of the Venezuelan town Torres voted for a new mayor who organized for power to be exercised by the inhabitants themselves. The results were astounding, yearly meetings in 560 arenas were organized, citizen involvement in politics rose, citizens trust in each other and politics increased, and clientelism and corruption was eliminated. In hundreds of municipalities in Latin America, similar programmes were installed, with similar outcomes. Dozens of municipalities in Europe use it, and in Venezuela and Peru it is official government policy.

Judging from this wide-spread success, participative budgeting is a great way to facilitate participation, deliberation, collaboration, and the dominance of good arguments.  Power differences in neighbourhoods are likely to be less extreme, and less deciding than on larger scales. Arguments are therefore likely to be well informed and keep other interests in mind.

A whole city’s budget is still difficult to decide upon, especially in a complex and networked country like the Netherlands. Therefore, community funds for specific areas or issues are a good place to start, especially since residents know these issues and care about the outcome. This has been done in the Dutch municipality of Leusden where a neighbourhood association is responsible for a local park. People started maintaining the park themselves instead of paying for maintenance. Not only did they save enough money to install a neighbourhood swimming pool, but the park became an important meeting-place. In this neighbourhood, satisfaction levels, social cohesion, and even house prices increased significantly.

Local developments are easily considered from a standpoint of spatial planning. Participatory budgets can be proposed for the maintenance of public space or facilities in neighbourhoods. Due to the collaborative paradigm, planners are well trained in the facilitation of coalitions and can provide an array of information or contacts to neighbourhood boards if need be, both concerning organization, and technical solutions. Planning is therefore well equipped to facilitate the initiation of this new step in democratic governance. Hopefully an increased amount of participation budgets will cause increased mutual trust in Dutch society, and better engagement in politics. But the proposal is not entirely without dangers.

A  recent challenge to the communicative paradigm is the rise of populism. Populism is the trending political phenomenon of the century and comprises a conflict between the “pure people” and the elites, with a demand for the general will of the people to be expressed in political affairs. Surprisingly, planning theory barely reflected on the issue of populism.

Authoritarian populism has been the greatest risk for participatory planning in the past decade. Populism, by nature, is anti-pluralist – creating a major conflict with the communicative approach. A growth in populist ideas will create pressure on planners and designers to shape space in accordance with traditional values and that priorities reflecting the will of the people will overcome economic and social rationalities, to mention a few of the consequences.

What communicative theorists fail to realize is that communicative planning should not find a way to defend against populism, but rather should question its relevance and efficiency to the political climate. The danger (and irony) is the contact point between populism and communicative planning – they both emphasize the need for direct communication and the demand to create power from the grassroots by the pure people. By that, communicative planning can be a tool for populist and not necessarily a confrontation zone. That would be a nonsensical situation – when a progressive practice as planning would provide the medium for an anti-intellectual force as populism to express itself.

Therefore, the communicative paradigm should be reconsidered. Theorists should reflect on whether it fits the political climate in many western “populising” societies. The communicative theory should be aware of the anti-intellectual, anti-rational and anti-institutional nature of populism. If the communicative paradigm really is a paradigm, isn’t this the moment for Kuhn’s state of crisis?

If collaborative participation is to continue and expand, this objection should be treated seriously, and a clear transparency and accountability mechanisms should be put in place. 


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