[OPINION] Why we need to make urban planning inclusive
Three years into the practice of environmental planning (or urban planning, however you may want to call it), and I feel demotivated about our profession. Let me tell you why planning is something that is still abstract to many of us, and why I think many of our efforts simply do not work well in our country.
It all started with one of those dinner meetings we had in Massachusetts. Politics, planning, and climate-ready cities were on the menu. Wayne Feiden, an American planning fellow, and a mentor for my exchange program, asked me if I studied about the rationalized planning model in graduate school. I said I did, and that it was one of the basics, with 3 core subjects covering its content and practice. In fact, it also made up part of the content of the Philippine licensure exam. I even proudly said how I taught the model to a lot of aspiring board exam takers in different island provinces.
"No," he replied. "I meant you know how it's just too authoritative, right?"
"Yes," I responded blankly across the dinner table. Wayne went on to discuss the pros and cons of the model to our dinner host. Meanwhile, I spent the rest of the night chomping garnished asparagus while pondering how ironic it was – someone who was dependent on authoritative approaches was studying placemaking and public spaces all the way across the Pacific, in one of the bluest, most liberal, democratic states of America. (READ: Create healthy cities, decolonize urban planning)
Jargon, readers would call out. And that is part of my point, though let me get to that in a while. To those who took up at least the basics of city planning and urban management, they would say this is going to be a war on two polarized approaches to how urban planning can be done.
First is "rationalized" planning. It looks into the systemic, logical, data-driven, law-abiding, public-management type of planning. The 2008 book about rationalized planning is practically a bible of our planning school, and used by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) to train local planning offices across the country. This book gave birth to some more updated, very technical planning guidebooks that the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board (HLURB) published starting in 2014.
The rationalized model is adapted from a combination of so many Philippine laws, and leans heavily on our 1991 Local Government Code. While a fair few paragraphs in either the book, the training modules, or the updated guidebooks pass over the word "consultation" or "participation," or show how a numeric matrix takes into account citizen votes, I believe that our current models still elude the true nature of inclusiveness.
Let me further indulge in the influential argument that health researcher Sherry Arnstein used. She wrote the article "A Ladder of Citizen Participation," which pored over the differences of how citizens participate (or not) in processes. One end of the ladder illustrates simple "information dissemination," and even "manipulation" (an example of which can be: people are used by governments). In the middle are "consultation" and "placation" (or mere appeasement), while the other end shows partnerships, delegated power, and citizen control.
This leads me to the second approach of doing urban planning: citizen-led. Radical, or something that challenges the roots of a system. A planning type that embraces and appreciates the chaos and creativity of a city. Proactive, as I learned in Massachusetts. Citizens took time, even if it was a short 3 minutes, to speak about their concerns to the city council. They planted crops for food sharing, put signage on the sidewalks if it was absent, or created events for support or protest – for biking, safe spaces, or equality against racism. (READ: Wanted: More liveable PH cities)
This type of planning is where we get to know about what we call "new urbanism," "tactical" and "do-it-yourself urbanism," and placemaking. In layman's terms, this type of planning is where you and I take the troubles of our cities into our own hands – we paint pedestrian lanes on our own, buffer bike lanes with pots to make them safer, and bring out chairs and tables to create pop-up parklets to reclaim streets from cars.
Between the two approaches, or hovering across many constructs, is inclusiveness.
Inclusiveness is something I believe we haven't substantially achieved. Many of our plans, at the local level or higher, were crafted by master planners, or economists, directed by mayors, or people who have authority. Citizen participation is mostly left to consultations, surveys, signatures on an attendance sheet, or a photo for the media, at the least. The true nature of our places, and our cities, are left to become rationalized, only to be justified and complied with after the planning process is done. It is very rare to find a locality where people come together to craft a plan without fearing political direction, or without the guidance of a non-governmental organization.
And this is why I believe our urban state is like this – disconnected, difficult, extremely political, troubled with implementation, and fascinated with power. Making planning work means putting the people at the heart and center of what we all want to achieve. That is why a vision for the city is a vision for all its citizens. Plans without ownership, and plans that are not implemented or understood by its stakeholders, are also plans that are useless.
This is also why I sometimes feel lost with our profession. Decades have come and gone, and many planners have succumbed to being consultants on pedestals, taking advantage of government budgets, and yet, failing to introduce implementable, financeable strategies, or teaching techniques to spark grassroots change. Hypocritical of me – I once used to think how creating my own firm and taking consultancies was the way to go. So do a lot of young planners nowadays. But I still believe that new and old blood can work together to improve our urban state.
The book on rationalized planning is cognizant of how many of our comprehensive plans sit dusty, "adorning bookshelves" of local executives. Even if we say how our laws have mechanisms that safeguard democracy, we can simply check our progress into how stakeholders have been involved in planning for our cities and for our development. So many people aren't even familiar with our local plans, called the Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP), let alone know that every city and municipality are required by law to produce them through a public, "inclusive" process.
At times, I go back to those casual conversations we had in Massachusetts. It was fascinating to me how my host city didn't even have a "rationalized" comprehensive plan. They didn't need it, they said. They just classified smaller plans according to sustainability, biking or walking trails, open spaces and conservation, and the like – those are what they needed. And they worked, because of how citizens were treated as partners, not merely supporters.
And while civic empowerment, data collation, and corruption are related but different stories to this piece, let me take this chance to call out fellow planners and other urban leaders to evaluate where their work is in this rational-radical spectrum, and to become critical of our practice. Genuine change, planning-wise or otherwise, comes from the communities, the people. Not just authoritative directives. – Rappler.com
Ragene Andrea L. Palma is an environmental planner working on community-led public and urban spaces through her post-fellowship impact challenge, called Placemade. She studied public spaces and environmental sustainability in Northampton, Massachusetts, during her YSEALI professional fellowship in May 2018.