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Deliberative democracy: a model for better engagement in planning

I recently attended the Oslo Architecture Triennale, which explored the idea of ‘degrowth’. Degrowth in a planning context is the idea that we need drastically to reconsider how we plan and build our cities.

It means disputing the idea that economic growth, rather than environmental or social improvement, should be the most desirable output from change.

One way to embed this shift in practice is to involve communities in planning – and we know that going beyond the statutory obligations of consultation has a positive impact on the communities most affected by new developments. Yet it is often us – the communities, individuals and critics – who are the barrier to achieving this.

One of the Triennale’s themes was the need to imagine alternative strategies for shaping better cities. I was particularly struck by the work of Alexander Eriksson Furunes, who produced a book called Reflection, which focuses on the Norwegian concept of ‘dugnad’.

Dugnad originated in the 11th century and is used to bring residents together to manage local affairs. It involves residents sharing time and resources when needed to assist on work that benefits the community, say, building a football pitch, a drainage ditch or a nursery.

“Dugnad has been used for thousands of years to bring residents together to manage local affairs”

The deliberative democracy carried out through dugnad allows for natural understandings of local traditions and knowledge specific to geographical context to arise. Consultations that happen at dugnads are not necessarily easy but they do motivate collective work and feelings of belonging. Shared benefits are teased out through debate and the result is an expression of civil commitment.

To understand how we make better decisions together involves an appreciation of the value of listening to others as the basis for generating agreement despite conflicting views. Furunes draws on case studies from as far away as Vietnam and The Philippines, where in post-disaster communities compromises are made as a sign of respect and intellectual humility, not as a sign of weakness.

This practice in deliberative democracy promotes a culture of empathetic politics, which in turn connects people with different identities and solves shared problems.

In light of this theme of this issue, I call on young planners not only to help promote and organise consultations as part of their work, but also to attend and engage in consultations as residents. Planning is having to adapt thoughtfully to new technologies that are seeping rapidly into our lives. Planning can engage young people better by not only continuing to be savvy about changing technologies and trends, but also by considering past techniques such as open conversation. 

Stuart MacLure is a campaigner and project manager for Long Live Southbank

Image credit | Shutterstock


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