Participation post Covid-19: lessons from planners’ stories

Last changed: 08 July 2021
Lego figures sitting around a table.

How do planners develop innovative practices of participation and what does this mean for the relationship between planners and citizens? Martin Westin, researcher for the Division of Environmental Communication, SLU, reflects upon the experiences of planners working on a socially sustainable district in Gottsunda, Uppsala.

The pandemic has resulted in a new dawn for conventional expertise and political authority. Far reaching decisions to restrict individual freedoms are implemented; whether citizens like it or not. Is this return of square authority forewarning the eclipse of citizens’ participation? Reflective planners’ stories suggest that they are still willing to attempt to realize the promise of participation; also post Covid-19.  

In the district of Gottsunda in Uppsala, a group of Swedish planners are developing innovative processes for participation. Alongside a larger building scheme these planners are determined to develop a “socially sustainable” district together with local residents. Within the Mistra Environmental communication programme wea group of researchers at SLU and Uppsala Universityhave organised a series of workshops where these planners have reflected upon their experiences of dialogues with citizens in GottsundaWhat can we learn about participation post Covid-19 from these planners’ stories? 

The stories provide windows into the practice of planners who wish to realise the promise of participation. In one story, a planner is confronted by a young girl who claims that Uppsala municipality’s development plans are about to “destroy Gottsunda”. The planner thinks that the girl’s resistance is a good thing because it shows that she has courage to state her opinion in the face of authoritiesIn another story, a planner narrates how she joined a private party to interact informally with a group of residentsIt was her way of learning about citizens’ concerns and developing trustful relationships within the communityBesides show-casing the planners’ dedication to the ideals of participation, these are stories about planners stretching the boundaries of their practice. 

Conventional wisdom has it that planners are civil servants who adhere to the rules of bureaucracy and the will of elected politiciansPlanners are moving outside the conventional justifications for their role in planning when appreciating youth’s resistance towards politically sanctioned plans and when assuming a semi-formal position at private party. That planners continue to challenge the norms of their practice is necessary for innovating participation after the Covid period of top-down decision making 

So far reflective planners’ attempts to promote participation rely heavily on Habermasian justificationsThis form of justification is grounded in honesty, trustworthiness and open discourse; ideals which tend to come up short against the “hard” norms of expertise, bureaucracy and political authority in planning practiceConventional planning norms might have been reinforced when we eventually come out on the other side of this pandemic. Therefore attempts to realise participation post Covid-19 seem to require a broader justification than the Habermasian one. 

What might be a more convincing justification for the actions of planners who challenge established planning norms? Perhaps the answer is to be found in the practices of planners who still believe in participation, yet are able to justify their actions based on expert authority? The justification would then not be about conventional appealto objective and value-free knowledge. Instead it would be about embodying and verbalising the kind of practical knowledge that reflective planners possess.  

Martin Westin
January 2021

Facts:

Martin Westin is a research at the Division of Environmental Communication, Department of Urban and Rural Development, SLU. Martin is currently working within the research projects Mistra Environmental Communication and Sustainable urban lifestyles through nudging and citizens participation 

Read more about Martin Westin here.

Urban Readings

Urban Readings is an initiative by SLU Urban Futures. The series brings together a diversity of voices, in and outside of academia, to reflect upon current issues within the urban realm. The project engages writers across disciplines to capture synergies between knowledge areas and understand the effects of urbanization, and the interconnection of societal, environmental and economic processes. The theme for the winter of 20/21,'Transformation to new realities from COVID - green or growth?', is a continuation of the first theme initiated in the "Covid-19 spring of 2020".

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