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Participative planning and the 'new normal'

Lockdown and social distancing make community engagement far more challenging - but with adaptability and will, planners can overcome constraints, says Michael Kordas

“The charrette takes place at the town centre bandstand. Local people, enticed by the buzz, can draw or write their suggestions for the regeneration of the area on a table set with blank paper or with building block models on a map, working alongside the facilitation team. A busker sets up nearby, playing her guitar and singing. The charrette feels like just another ‘attraction’ that might be found in any town centre Saturday morning and integrates perfectly with the street life.”

So my research diary records from a charrette in Clydebank in 2018 to create a local place plan. During my PhD project, I argued that participative planning by public event could create an atmosphere of partnership between planners and citizens.

Scotland is an interesting environment for this; the government has supported charrettes, enquiries by design and similar interventions since the 2000s. Facilitators have set up their own ‘stall’ locally during participative events, igniting interest and bringing professionals and communities together through working over maps and sketches or experiencing host places ‘live’ on walking tours and site visits.

But the foreseeable future with its need to physically distance, counts against the interpersonal energy of these formats. How will participative planning meet the new normal?

“The explosion in working and socialising from home under lockdown has shown that wider society is adaptable to doing things differently – as planners we must be, too”

Pre-epidemic, there was already developing experience in planning engagement focused on social media, apps and even wearable tech. The use of web meeting technologies, not only for engagement on new strategies, but for planning committees and pre-application consultation, is also likely.

Nevertheless, the quality of engagement that these communication methods might deliver and the problems of ensuring inclusive access are big hurdles. Perhaps serious online participation, especially on local development and community planning, requires a change of pacing as well as method?

One approach could be to invite the public into an online co-production space, as is common in tech and higher education, permitting dialogue between stakeholders over weeks or months.

The explosion in working and socialising from home under lockdown has shown that wider society is adaptable to doing things differently: as planners we must be too. 

Michael Kordas MRTPI is data manager with the Scottish government and was recently awarded a PhD in urban studies by the University of Glasgow

Image credit | Shutterstock


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