“Participation is a prerequisite for sustainable urban development”

Interview with Franziska Schreiber and Kaj Fischer

According to Franziska Schreiber and Kaj Fischer from the think tank adelphi, innovative participation processes make cities more livable. URBANET talked to both urbanisation experts about how municipalities and residents can work together to shape their city.


URBANET: How would you define participation in an urban context?

Kaj Fischer: For one thing, participation in this context means that I can partake in the process of developing the city. But it also means that I can participate in whatever is happening in the city. Every person living in a city or benefitting from a city should be able to partake and shape that city. It’s not only about the question of how an area is developed, but also whether people have access to spaces and can fulfil themselves. It is also important that citizens can actively participate in society, for example by doing voluntary work or by joining a sports club for leisure. Every resident of the city should have access to this.

URBANET: Why is it important that people participate in urban development, especially with regard to sustainable urban development?

Franziska Schreiber: Participation is one of the basic prerequisites for achieving sustainable urban development. I think that municipalities, urban planners and politicians need to understand that the residents of a city know their neighbourhood best. For example, they know whether green spaces in their area are well-kept or how well their area is connected to public transport. It is important that this local knowledge, this local expertise is used in planning processes.

Kaj Fischer: If participation works out well and the residents find that decisions taken reflect their own views and needs, chances are high that planning processes will be accelerated and suitable solutions will be found that will make the city more liveable.

URBANET: What exactly can cities do if they want to further enhance participation?

Franziska Schreiber: The job requirements of city planners have changed, and so have the requirements of municipalities. In the past, they were only responsible for questions of planning and architecture; nowadays they also need facilitation and mediation skills. To successfully involve citizens in planning processes, they need to approach them and design appealing platforms that invite residents to participate.

It is not enough to offer residents to come to an assembly in the town hall and voice their requests and concerns there. Municipalities have to offer more such as creative workshops, or citizen surveys that also reach out to disadvantaged groups. It should also be communicated through a variety of channels that residents do have a say in matters of urban planning. Many are still not aware that such possibilities exist.

Kaj Fischer: Approaching and involving the residents is really important. The municipalities have to be more active and need to communicate that shaping the city is a joint effort, and not the usual top-down-process.

URBANET: Can you think of any successful urban development participation projects?

Franziska Schreiber: I can think of one example from Mumbai, where I worked for an NGO in 2011. The city wanted to adopt a development plan for the next 20 years and commissioned a consulting firm based in Bangalore to develop the plan. This consultancy obviously lacked local knowledge of Mumbai, and many NGOs in Mumbai were afraid that the needs of the residents would not be given enough attention. With the support of the municipality, they implemented a participation procedure to inform the residents about the development plan, and to encourage them to participate in the drafting of this plan.

The residents were addressed through multiple formats: for example, leaflets were distributed and posters were put up in all parts of the city, qualitative and quantitative citizens’ surveys were conducted, and there were stakeholder talks with politicians, practitioners and scholars on core issues like water and energy supply. These components worked well together and in the end showed that the needs of the residents were accurately reflected. From this process, several recommendations were derived which were ultimately included in the final development plan. That was a great success.

URBANET: Why are many cities still reluctant to choose such a path and allow for more participation?

Franziska Schreiber: First of all, many municipalities are afraid of losing control, since it is not clear what outcome the participatory processes would take. Another reason is a lack of capacities. In order for participatory processes to really work, municipalities need adequate human capacities and the knowledge of how to initiate an innovative participatory procedure.

Kaj Fischer: As a municipality, if I open up to starting a civic participation process I have to make sure that something is going to happen with the result. There’s nothing worse than to mobilise and to motivate the residents and to collect ideas from them and then doing nothing or not being able to put their suggestions into action in the end.

URBANET: In which sectors do you see strong need for more participation?

Kaj Fischer: In pretty much all sectors actually, but especially in the social realm.
When it comes to construction projects and spatial design, both municipalities as well as residents have become aware that these tasks can be handled by working together. But a city is more than that. Questions of medical or child care are relevant, and currently also the question of how to handle the situation of refugees in a proactive and productive way. In these sectors, cities often still lack the idea that residents can and should be involved.

URBANET: Do residents generally want to have a say and to influence decisions?

Kaj Fischer: I think there is a general desire to shape society and therefore to also shape cities. However, this desire often turns into frustration, because many residents feel like they cannot or are not allowed to have a say or influence anything. There are still not enough positive examples of participation that could serve as role models.

URBANET: Can cities develop a mode of participation that really includes all those who want to be involved?

Franziska Schreiber: I think that we should definitely admit that participation will always be selective. There will never be a point where all groups are equally represented or where everybody wants to participate. But as a municipality, one should try to take into account the needs of as many citizens as possible. That is – as I highlighted before – where the right kinds of platforms and formats come into play. For instance, it is not enough to rely on online platforms when many people still don’t have access to the internet. Or maybe there are people whose native language is not German, which makes it important to organise events and provide information in other languages. Overall, I think it’s important to directly approach and involve the groups that you want to include. That means visiting the neighbourhoods, talking to the local residents and asking them about their opinions. Municipalities should not wait until residents come them.

Franziska Schreiber & Kai Fischer

Franziska Schreiber & Kai Fischer

Project Managers at adelphi
Franziska Schreiber works for adelphi as a project manager in the area of urban transformation. Her work engages with international urban negotiation processes as well as with different aspects of urban governance, sustainable urban development and the interface of urban planning and social cohesion. She is the author of various studies, political analyses and develops dialogue formats for current political processes.

Kai Fischer works for adelphi has a project manager in the area of urban transformation. He has engaged with questions of global urbanization, urban governance and urban climate protection in various studies and reports.
Franziska Schreiber & Kai Fischer

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