Thursday, October 22, 2009

Building Citizens

One of the challenges of municipal planning is engaging people within the community, and having them participate in meaningful and productive ways. Unfortunately there are a number of issues that make this daunting, and no doubt also a challenge for other municipal services.

I believe much of the cause rests with having people that are outside of the process by means of lack of information and/or lack of understanding. Both of which are often outside of their direct control, given the increasing complex municipal planning systems dominated by experts and professionals. I think it is fair to say that average (whatever that may be) people feel unequipped to participate in planning projects because they feel they don't know "enough" about them. Many others do participate, but in less than effective ways, because they don't know when or how to enter the process to have the best impact.

What is missing is a citizenry that has the tools to be part of THE PROCESS; and let's not forget it is THEIR PROCESS.

I feel that the need for Planning education for communities is critically important, and that it is one of the roles of municipal Planning departments to fulfill this need. Municipal Planning departments should be engaging their communities with active efforts to teach/inform about planning practices and contemporary theory as it relates to their community's context. This needs to be done in an ongoing manner that is independent of any particular project or application (which is almost exclusively the case and often leads to the forming of adversarial positions and a sense that the municipality is trying to justify their actions, as opposed to providing unbiased information). I suggest WE execute strategies that use all the professional facilitation, engagement, and participatory tools WE have available to achieve this (for example: social networking tools; walking tours; open space sessions; workshops; charrettes; videos; surveys; lectures; newspaper and magazine articles; posters; TV and radio discussions; publishing booklets; free courses, etcetera).

The goal is to increase the knowledge and understanding of planning within the community. Over time WE would be helping to build a citizenry that is able to understand and engage in planning actions with more awareness, effective measures, and participation. The results of this kind of work would bring us closer to municipal planning that is fair, efficient, just, and effective.

If our efforts are focused on building the places of our communities and ensuring that the "machine" runs efficiently, but WE loose sight of building our citizens with the assets of knowledge and understanding that empowers them, WE as Planners are forgetting who this is all for. People.

Give a community a plan; you have informed them. Teach a community how to plan; and you have empowered them.

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