The title of this article arose from the writer’s rumination about the urban planning practice in Nigeria and its shortcomings. Every planner knows public participation is fundamental to the profession. It is in our code of ethics, our academic training; and it is made mandatory in our planning laws.
Yet our practice of public participation in planning has not witnessed acceptable level of improvement. It is still practiced in tokenism compared to what obtains in other democratic countries where citizen participation in planning is the norm, the law and the only acceptable practice. The citizens of those countries own their cities. They have collective voice in the planning process. They are well informed of planning issues in their cities and “the dream of a better city is always in the heads of the residents.” Their planning professionals provide the technical expertise in translating the dreams to reality through plan formulation, program initiation and project development. The funding and implementation of programs and projects is the responsible of the government.
Readers may ask, what is the fuss about public (citizen) participation in planning? The answer is simple: citizens are their own experts on what they value and what they hold as their belief. This does not require rocket science rationalization. For example, it is a personal decision where you want to live, the type of house you want to live in, how you want to commute and where you play or spend your leisure time. As citizens, you have to provide the information during plan formulation to enable the planners who have the technical knowledge to conceptualise a plan that would fit into the value of your community. Such value is usually a collective decision of the residents taken at a forum, typically a public hearing or town hall meeting. The exact thing planning does (using the expertise of planners) is to enable the citizens to have choices in their communities.
It then logically follows that if any decision is to be taken, those who will be affected by the decision must take part in the decision-making process. Research has found out that “wherever citizens have been given the opportunity to participate in their communities, the results have been drastically encouraging.” Definitely, such inclusive approach produces better decisions and in the long run, citizens are satisfied because they are rest assured that their various interests have been adequately addressed.
Let us have a paradigm shift
The kernel of the message I want to transmit is that citizens’ participation has come to define good planning world-wide. If we embrace the practice in our society, it should improve the quality of life of our people. When government decides to plan, the citizenry should be carried along. If planning is not to be labeled a direct control of resources by government, not only it must take into consideration citizens’ and other stakeholders’ opinion, it must start with them (my emphasis). Public participation builds trust and support. There is little chance of a plan that has no “ownership” by the citizenry of being effective and successful.
What is expected of town planners
The professionals involved in planning, most especially the town planners, must build trust with the people and sustain that trust. To care is to build trust. People care less about what you know professionally until they know how much you care about their welfare. Planners should be tolerant, patience, good listeners to the yearnings of the people, not impostors. They should not abuse their office. The message in the phrase “abuse of office” in our situation is self-explanatory and implicit. It needs no further explanation.
Abuse of office is one of the reasons for societal disdain for the profession. Our planners must always remember that planning is a function of society working together to achieve a desirable goal; the planners are the catalysts in realizing the dream. In our society, public perception about town planners must change from ill feelings to mutual understanding and cordiality with the public.
Again, we need to critically assess our role in whatever approach we choose to galvanise public support during plan preparation, mindful of the population we are serving and the level of the education. Given recognition to this fact, our primary obligation is to design simple, easy-to-understand and inclusive engagement process to draw citizens closer, not to drift them apart from us. City dwellers in our country need civics education on how not to be charlatan about planning, how to be community-minded and to care for the city. They need to know how people can work together as a community. I see a big role that planners can play in this regard by letting citizens have exposure into the workings of government, in order to erase the erroneous impression that planning is about control of resources or outright dictation as to what people can do with their property.
What the citizens should do
The citizens’ complementary role in this bargain should be total. They must be active and ever-ready to participate in planning. Houses make a town; citizens make a city. Therefore, the people must be in the driver’s seat during the planning process. To be effective, the citizenry must be ready to read and freely discuss planning issues affecting their communities, attend public hearing and participate in civic engagement activities focused on promoting good planning practice where they reside.
The citizenry should be able to connect with the government through many media and options. They can choose letter writing to city officials, submit suggestion online with the use of the internet or join a group discussion such as the Community Development Association (CDA), Landlord Association and Religious Association. These are just few examples; the means are inexhaustible. The overall benefit is that active participation educates and empowers citizens and makes them responsible for civic action.
My candid opinion is that, both government and planners need to raise the level of our practice and commitment to citizen participation. We cannot deny this fact. It is the right thing to do. Albeit there are challenges, we should not throw in the towel.
A caveat: if we fail to recognise citizens’ involvement in the planning process due to often-held bias that the process is time-consuming and costly. The ranting that people don’t usually come to town hall meetings or that the target audience are mostly illiterates, my fear is that this could cause more damage to the fragile reputation of the planning profession which, in the main, is still struggling for public acceptance in our society.
By Yacoob Abiodun, a planning advocate, in Hayward, California, USA.