“There Are No Empty Seats At A Round Table…”

A friend of mine, from my days studying architecture, posted an amazing article on Facebook entitled “What Starbucks Get That Architects Don’t.” The author of this article, Christine Outram, wrote a compelling piece on how architects are an outdated bunch because they’re out of touch with the people. Many of their buildings don’t address people. Correction: “You don’t listen to people”, she said. I strongly encourage you to read this article. It’ll only take about 5-7 minutes to get through it…

While this article is geared towards architects, I cannot help but feel that it’s also relevant to planning as well. While our field is geared more towards people, or, at least, it very well should, I can’t help but feel as if, more often than not, we operate with a modicum of autonomy. We are an educated lot and so I wonder if we see ourselves as “above” the people.

In their article “What do Buzzwords do for Development Policy? A Critical Look At ‘Participation’, ‘Empowerment’ and ‘Poverty Reduction'”, Andrea Cornwall and Karen Brock spoke on the dangers of buzzwords in development, words that are “warmly persuasive”, “seductive” and “carrying the allure of optimism and purpose” but are actually used to implement “one-size-fits-all development recipes.” In the past, the word “participation” has been synonymous with social movements and with the struggle for citizenship and voice. In my opinion, this word now being used to illicit the same feelings as the days of yore while deliberately failing to deliver the goods: they are being used to perpetuate illusions of inclusion. Cornwall and Brock stated that these words “have now come to symbolise the legitimacy to pursue today’s generation of development blueprints, under the rubric of poverty reduction” and that mainstream development agencies use them to “purvey a storyline that situates them as guardians of rightness and champions of progress.” In effect, they argue, the use of buzzwords in development policy does nothing to alleviate the plight of impoverished countries. The way I see it, words like “participation” and “empowerment” actually serve to empower a few while disempowering many.

“Well, what do you propose? How can planners be more connected with the people? How could we do things differently than how they’re being done now? Is it even possible?” Anna Colom wrote a piece for The Guardian entitled “How To Avoid Pitfalls In Participatory Development”. In it, she listed a few measures one could take to ensure that participatory development actually accomplishes what it should and that everyone truly has a seat at the table:

1) Clearly Define “Participation” & “Ownership” – Be flexible. Be honest. Who will participate and how much will they participate? Better to be upfront about it than to yank everyone’s chain.

2) Understand the Context – Understand the power relations between community members and between the community and local partners and stakeholders. Many times, these relations make or break a “good plan.”

3) Define the Community – Do not idealize. Do not simplify. Do not assume.

4) Know When To Lead. Know When To Follow – Know when to fall back and truly allow the participants to participate. As planners, we may have the expertise, but they have the experience.

5) Decide What Happens When You “Leave” – How viable and sustainable is your plan? When it’s handed over to the people, will it fall apart?

This is an appeal to reiterate the importance of including people in the work that we do because, without them, we don’t have a job. There is a dire need for us to develop our public relations and really LISTEN to people. Undoubtedly, it would prolong and complicate the planning process, but there are no “quick fixes” to society’s problems. This is not pertinent to just the Americas, but the entire world where urban planning is practiced and urban planners are needed. Let us take on a “round table” approach to planning and the planning process, one that allows as many voices as possible so as to make the most informed decisions. After all, there are no empty seats at a round table…

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