Citizen participation in a city’s management is a nice idea, but extremely difficult to implement in daily life. Most of us are happy to deposit our ballot in the box every so many years to delegate our power to elected officials who will most likely not reappear at the next elections.
From Tunis to Cairo, from Madrid to Kiev, from Paris to Manhattan, the crises that affect us give rise to huge and tumultuous demonstrations, with unhappy consequences. Those who mobilize so easily when things go wrong seem to lose their motivation when calm returns and it’s time to manage things. Participation is present in all the speeches of politicians (especially before the elections), but nobody really knows how to do it. At any rate, they don’t.
In the absence of a magic recipe, let’s try to retain certain elements that might facilitate participation, starting with five ideas inspired by local administrations.
1. Simplify technology, make it more understandable
This is the aim of New Yorker Daniel Latorre in his action to help those interested in viewing the route of bike lanes. Satellite maps are more illuminating and give rise to more debate. “People understand it more easily than with traditional maps, which are very abstract”, he explained.
Unlimited Cities, the collaborative urban planning tool developed by the architect Alain Renk, goes much further. This app for iPad enables a neighborhood’s residents to see how it would be if it had, for example, more houses, more people or more trees. This can help people better understand the implications of their elections and open the door to debate among all those who expressed their view.
2. Start with the specific, what affects people’s lives
As illustrated by the examples found by my students at the Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences-Po, projects that work usually start with specific problems. Jaccede.com started with the aim of making the city accessible to people with reduced mobility. Active in 16 countries, RepairCafe.org enables users to “repair” their broken objects instead of throwing them in the trash.
3. Hierarchical structures and horizontal communication
Dominant in administrative and political life, hierarchical structures were more effective when horizontal communication was impossible. Efficiency today is found more often on the side of networked organizations (or hybrid structures) where each point can communicate directly and instantly with all the others. With their capacity to meet and disperse quickly, they adapt to the absence of a leader giving orders and tolerate those they inspire. Unlike what political parties live off, participation is temporary and materializes in limited goals. They obviously err due to the dilution of responsibilities they involve (absence of accountability). We see how they emerge everywhere, for example, in the multiple iterations of the Occupy movement.
4. Size matters
And “small is beautiful, again“. This is what gives strength to the urban acupuncture implemented in this city by Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiva in Brazil. The recent book Tactical Urbanism moves in the same direction. People will participate less if the project is gigantic, and more if the project is on a human scale.
It’s a good thing to give power to the people, or even better, for them to seize it (to improve a public service, for example). But it’s power on a small scale. True participation involves contributing to the design, the conception and the management of the territories.
Rather than taking it from the State, or the territorial authorities, the idea is for them to empower themselves together, here and now, even if it’s a very small place, and thus have an influence on the rest.
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