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The Undeniable Necessity of Citizens' Participation in Urban Issues

  2020 September 28 Monday:

The need for citizen participation in urban projects is a permanent requirement for having a better urban management.

A webinar titled ‘Citizen Participation in Urban Projects’ was held in the presence of Tehran urban managers on September 16, 2020.

Zoheir Sabaghpour, Deputy for International Affairs of Tehran Municipality also attended the virtual meeting.

Lecturer of the webinar Ali Madanipour, professor of Urban Design of Newcastle University, shared his studies in terms of citizen participation in urban construction projects.

The webinar revolved around four main topics: (a) history behind the concept of citizen participation and the need for it, (b) process of participation, (c) partnership, and (d) samples of citizen participation in different cities.  

In the past, urban construction was mainly quantitative and mass construction governed various urban areas. However, it failed after some years because a city is where people live, and therefore, public opinion matters and construction does not mean merely considering technical issues.

It is generally accepted that when a decision affects a group of people, the decision makers should cooperate with those people to enhance the quality, performance, and legitimacy of our decisions, and also to increase the knowledge and abilities of local people.

Citizen participation is a widely accepted necessary issue in the urbanization process. This concept entails different steps and procedures, and various countries might experience different forms of public participation.

A large number of people consider the concepts of both participation and consultation the same. While the former refers to a practical cooperation, the latter is associated with a theoretical cooperation. In some countries such as the UK, participation embeds cooperation.

Participation includes different levels starting from informing, continuing with consulting, involving, collaborating, and ending with empowering.

Some of the challenges of citizen participation are to strike a balance between efficiency and legitimacy, between promise and action, between technology needs and public needs, and last but not least, between public and private sectors benefits.

People's defensive manners toward the decisions which are made, jargons used by experts, cultural differences between people and experts, long-time projects, lack of inclusivity, lack of attention to public opinion, and finally partnership are among the obstacles to citizen participation. 

Whatever the public opinions are, paucity of attention to their ideas leads to lack of trust in people.

Another clarification in terms of public participation is the difference between participation and partnership. Although partnership is an economic term in which members of a company will cooperate based on a business contract, participation is a social cooperation term which is based on interaction.

The key concept of partnership is that governmental resources are not sufficient to meet the needs of the city and thus required to be equipped with private sector resources.

Regarding partnership, there are two major approaches the first of which is the public sector, which is responsible for providing services that come in useful for people of different social strata, and the second is the private sector investing merely for the purpose of getting benefits without considering public needs.

In case the private sector is more prominent in urban plans, the projects will move toward gaining more and more benefits. Public and private sectors need to work hand in hand to experience an efficient urban management; however, directing attention to people’s needs and their participation is highly required to reach the desirable outcome.

The New London Plan which was planned for 2019-2041 shows citizen participation in London. However, such plans require periodical revisions due to unexpected issues including economic problems caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The New London Plan included several consultation events and examinations before it was made public in autumn 2019. 

Citizen participation was also evident in urban plans of Antwerp in Belgium, Albuquerque in New Mexico, Birmingham, Lewisham, Dikmen Valley and Liverpool.

According to an article in the UK, trust in the planning system is usually almost nonexistent. The driving factors behind this lack of trust are as follows:

  • Large-scale development has had a negative impact on their local area
  • Developers only care about making or saving money
  • Councils only care about making or saving money

City developers could build trust by taking the following meaures:

  • Developers and councils should be held accountable for what they promised
  • Presenting more opportunities for local people to influence the outcome of development, and more transparency from private developers

It is a common understanding among all of us that in order to build and strengthen trust in the decision-making and planning system, there is ultimately no choice but to encourage citizens to participate in the various issues of the city. Even the next month and week can be late; To get people involved in local governance, we need to start today.

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