Sunday, January 18, 2015


We often take for granted that we know each other - the people around us in the world where we live. Beyond assumptions one may make of their neighbors are those who work to shape the places inhabited by others in the city. Traditionally urban planners and architects have attempted to - perhaps even been forced to - simplify the problem of complexity in the city - undercutting the tasks before them. The "public" is grouped into a neat term that characteristics and wishes can be assigned to, or it is divided into social groups to attribute some normative trends towards activities and different general preferences to work towards. Today, many of these professionals tout participation as a mode of hearing the peoples' voice (or that of the ubiquitous public) in projects and debates, but question remains if they are getting as much as they could from that forum.

For one, we know that public participation events often informs us of those who are particularly eager to dominate planning and development discussions. In both Norway and the US, this type provokes a familiar image of an aging or retired male or female, outspoken, and fueled by very precise personal interests that may or may not be related to the project at hand - cue whatever reaction is a professionally acceptable form of rolling eyes. Of course, we know that it is wrong to dismiss these types, no matter how difficult they make consensus building or decision-making. Still, I am not sure how often they are really heard, short of when they manage to rally others behind their cause. While many a planner and architect may dread the uncomfortable encounter with these types, I wonder if it isn't more of just those insights into specific people that we need.

As an academic, I can (fortunately) consider this proposition removed from the very practical need of making decisions and meeting deadlines. Nevertheless, I, for one, am not convinced that participation is a useful tool for decision-making - it is rarely as democratic, including, effective, or bottom-up as our theoretical ideals would have it. If we removed consensus building from public hearing goals yet continued to ask for participation, we might end up with an interesting array of perspectives. By inviting everyone to offer their view where everyone else could see it, perhaps we could form better ideas about whom the others actually are - of how little we understand about them, and just maybe, how professionals could find mediating ways to work amidst their local complexities.

There are plenty of academics more qualified than I researching this idea - trying to figure out the practical implications of, for example Chantal Mouffe's "agonism" - the inherent benefits that may come from open conflict and the true embrace of diversity (of opinion and of being) through pluralism. I think it is equally important for regular people (members of the public, if you will) to become aware of those around, the incredible diversity that is often paired with a lacking awareness of others - those other than each themselves. Therein lies the real value of the public sphere, and the reason it could be quite dangerous to lose it. Public life seems to be tottering towards filtering itself into like groups - on one hand through commercialization or privatization of public spaces and  through computer algorithms showing us only the viewpoints we want to see in social media on the other. It is important that we support the few forums left where we might encounter strangers and different perspectives rather than allow each to enclose themselves in their familiar and fear the rest.

While planners and designers continue using participation techniques to attempt solving questions that usually actually fall under their own expertise, it would be interesting to instead see participation as a learning tool - where the professionals and all involved participants might come together to learn about each other. I am reminded now of a recent lecture in Oslo where the speaker said – we have to stop planning as if everyone is 30 years old and athletic! It seems quite likely that what is more important than everyone agreeing is actually bringing everyone to acknowledge their disagreements and more openly consider the motives that inspire each point of view.

We are all the same in the fact that we are each different. Tolerance of the other might not be achievable through consensus so much as it might be through open awareness, acknowledgement and consideration of differences.

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