We can only create better cities if we drop distrust and involve ‘the neighbourhood’ in new plans at an early stage. Because the best plan comes from a combination of expertise and community knowledge.
“People who have studied long and hard for it have thought about this for a very long time!” It is a reaction to the question of how residents, entrepreneurs and other users of a place are involved in the planning of a large-scale urban development. It still happens: real estate developers and governments make a plan with an army of experts. Afterwards, residents, local entrepreneurs and organisations are allowed to comment on it. And that moment is met with dread. Because not infrequently the local commununity digs in it’s heels and speak out against the plans. Not In My Backyard!
A month ago, sociologist Frans Soeterbroek published a fascinating essay. It bears the telling title ‘Contested plans, underestimated citizens’. Soeterbroek shows that critical residents often know very well what they are talking about. On the contrary, they are eager to participate and contribute. But then the conversation has to be carried out in a timely and sincere manner. The very act of excluding the local community, provokes NIMBY behaviour, is his crystal-clear conclusion.
Professionals need to realise that a contribution from the local community does not disqualify the professional's expertise.
What Soeterbroek also illustrates is that in more and more places, residents themselves are coming up with alternative plans. These are plans that often fit the neighbourhood and the city better. With this Right to Challenge, previously made plans by governments and developers are thrown out. Wouldn’t it be much better to invite the local community to the development table much earlier in order to create one rock-solid plan together?
Soeterbroek sees a lack of trust from the government and the private sector as the main reason for not taking citizens seriously as full development partners. In doing so, it is good for professionals to realise that a contribution from the local community in no way disqualifies the professional’s expertise. Residents and professionals are experts in completely different fields. What we do need to learn is to value the input of professionals and that of the community equally.
An ‘expert’ is expected to have a lot of knowledge and experience in a certain field. This does not automatically mean an academic education. Someone with extensive experience can also be an expert. The group of subject matter experts – i.e. us – are the policymakers, area developers, urban planners, planners, consultants, communication strategists and whatever we are all called. Then there are the so-called community experts. These are the residents, local entrepreneurs, civil society organisations, culture makers, creatives and all other users of the place in question.
Both expert groups have unique knowledge and experience and are thus complementary to each other. Because whereas a community expert probably has little knowledge of an urban development plan, an urban planner can in no way interpret the unique soul of the place in question. Only someone who knows the place inside out can bring in that specific expertise from experience.
Therefore, it is certainly not the intention that the professional and community experts do each other’s work. Giving all expertises a voice at the development table will result in the best plan for the specific location. Plus, double profit: the result is a plan that is immediately widely supported by the local community. Yes, Please in My Backyard!
For those who want to expand their development team with community experts, the essay (in Dutch) by Frans Soeterbroek – which can be downloaded for free here – also contains a list of instruments that can support this co-creative process.
This column was published on 10 October 2022 on platform gebiedsontwikkeling.nu.