Planning as enablement

Why planning processes need to reduce risk aversion in order to foster innovation and community participation.

Traditional processes of urban planning are characterised by a plan-and-control approach that offers little opportunity for immediate citizen engagement—and certainly not control. They are technocratic, rather than democratic. This makes it difficult for citizens to initiate projects, and to have shared responsibility for local neighbourhoods.

Recently, I had an interaction with a local Council in Melbourne, which highlighted this inflexibility. Together with some local business owners, I proposed creating a small public open space in two underutilised and non-revenue generating car parking spaces. Known as ‘Parklets‘, these small, modular spaces have produced measureable improvement in levels of sustainable transport, social inclusion and local economic benefit in the United States, and there are some existing examples in Melbourne.
Parket image citiesbycitizensIn this instance, the proposal was only for a trial Parklet. The project would be installed for one month in order to examine the impact, risks, opportunities associated with the space. This would then be used to build community support and evidence to inform a permanent facility.

The project was consistent with Council’s objectives for social inclusion and increasing the area of green space in the municipality. However, the lack of standard process around pop up projects or urban prototyping made a simple request suddenly very complicated. Without a procedure in place, the project passed through every level of the local government up to the CEO, who eventually recommended the project be submitted to the elected Council for review. Finally, in order for the trial to be approved, a road occupation permit and formal traffic management plan were requested. Both these formal application processes required substantial fees or expert reports.

Ultimately, the required documentation and risk management was disproportionately expensive for the low-cost trial, and it did not go ahead. Ironically, this same car park had been occupied by a skip for the past 3 months. It would have been far easier to install a rubbish bin in a public car park than it was to create a self-funded project would offer local economic, environmental and community benefit.
parklet cover

While this is just one example, it highlights a number of challenges surrounding current city-making processes. Here I want to discuss three:

Firstly, current procedures for establishing public spaces are design for experts: urban planners, engineers, architects, landscape architects. There are no parallel processes for local communities wanting to establish (and even fund) projects in their local neighbourhoods. While the current model might involve opportunities community communication and consultation, local communities have little opportunity for meaningful participation, and certainly not project initiation. A preferred approach is one that allows for both top-down and bottom-up decision making, and greater shared responsibility with communities.

Secondly, regulation caters for permanent infrastructure, and there is little scope for short-term trials and activities. While long-term planning is necessary on one level, regulating exclusively for the long-term means that resultant plans are not flexible enough to accommodate rapidly changing local needs, shifts in social structure, changes in the economy, or new insights into how cities might operate. An approach which combines long-term infrastructure planning with short-term prototyping to test and evaluate plans as social and economic needs change, would be a more effective means of city-making. This approach enables active, vibrant places in the short term, and also ensures that long-term plans can be adaptive to changing needs.

Thirdly: The risk aversiveness of local government limits citizen empowerment and innovation. Permits, fees, high insurances and lengthly application forms can make it prohibitively difficult for communities to initiate civic improvement projects. Some procedure and risk management is required, certainly, but systems should focus on fostering innovation and opportunity. Currently governments tend to act as gate keepers, rather than partners for local communities. Community partnerships can offer many mutual benefits including shared funding, maintenance and responsibility. After-all the globally acclaimed New York High-Line was a community-initiated project, and was possible because of an effective government-community partnership.

Current government planning procedures work well for expert-led, long-term planning processes. However they impose disproportionate control on projects that are initiated by communities, or demonstrate an unplanned land use. This stops citizens from being proactive in shaping, innovating and even funding projects in their local neighbourhood.

If city planning is to keep up with the needs of our rapidly growing and changing cities, there is a need to adopt more flexible approaches to urban development. Urban prototyping offers one solutions to this challenge. The benefits of this approach are:

  • Low-risk trials that allow testing of new concepts before substantial financial or political commitments are made;
  • Shared responsibility, and sometimes also shared costs, with local communities
  • Allow places can evolve incrementally, in response to changing local needs. rather than being bedded down in inflexible long-term plans.
  • Foster innovation and creative use of spaces.

Urban prototyping may offer an alternative pathway to the cycle of fees, permits and hearings. However this will only be possible if current planning processes can be flexibile to allow short term, temporary and community-led projects. As we have seen in the parklet example here, even facilitating the most basic of urban prototypes still requires some regulatory changes. However the core question is not how to regulate for urban prototyping and flexible use of space, as this could instigate a new set of inflexible rules. The question is how governments can work together with local communities to foster innovation and shared responsibility.

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