The Landscape Guide

2.6 Knowledge-intensive planning

Contents list

Planners have responded to the public outcry against road building and other plans with offers of "public participation in planning'. The idea is excellent. The practice is usually deficient. At worst, planners give an impression of treating the public according to the disdainful motto: "They say. What do they say? Let them say.' At best, planners have shown skill in drawing fresh ideas from the public and putting them to work. Public participation can operate in several ways: advisory committees, written comment, public debate and design workshops. Each has value. Each can be criticized.

Advisory committees can work in parallel with public committees, as in Germany and Holland. Authorities generally have subsidiary committees, of elected members, dealing with planning, parks, housing etc. Each is paralleled with an advisory committee. It is a good way of expanding the knowledge base for decision making. The difficulty lies in choosing the advisors. If they are professionally qualified in the subject, they will be an interest group. If they are volunteers, they will be unrepresentative. If they are elected, they will come under the sway of political parties. Normally, they will lack knowledge, and the decision-making process can become very lengthy.

Written comments can be invited on draft plans. A leaflet can be circulated or an exhibition mounted. The public can be invited to write letters and complete questionnaires. Sometimes, they receive written answers. Letters produce a good opportunity for individuals to let off steam but, generally, do not lead to constructive improvements. Too often, the minorities oppose one another. This leaves planners with the satisfying delusion that they have "conducted the orchestra' and reached a balanced compromise.

Public debate can take place after the planners have given an account of their proposals. This allows people who are happier talking than writing to make a contribution, but the results are similar to exercises in written consultation. It too often seems that planners listen to what is said, as a formality, and then do what they intended in the first place. This is not necessarily the planners' intention, but it is the impression received by the public.

Design workshops can be enjoyable and productive (Figure 2.5). Public meetings are held. The planners come with open minds, large-scale models, white paper and fat pens. Members of the public put forward ideas, which are drawn on paper and then countered with other ideas. Such sessions can be very creative yet unrealistic. With idealism in the air, it is too easy to ignore economic realities and entrenched interests.

So what should be done? Use all the methods? Reject all the methods? Devise new methods? Each solution is workable, provided it brings together those with both rough and smooth hands: clients, owners, builders, component-makers, designers, planners and maintenance workers. For architecture, Hassan Fathy wrote of re-establishing "the Trinity':

Client, architect; and craftsman, each in his province, must make decisions, and if any one of them abdicates his responsibility, the design will suffer and the role of architecture in the cultural growth and development of the whole people will be diminished. (Fathy, 1973)

But for the environment, who is "the client'? This is a central problem. For a private house, the client is the building owner. For speculative housing, shops and offices, the client is hydra-headed: financiers, insurance companies, property managers and, at the far end of a long list, those who merely spend their lives using the places. For transport schemes, too, there are many clients with divergent interests. When cycling, I want a vastly better provision of segregated cycle tracks. When driving, I can be heard muttering "Bloody cyclists'. When walking, I feel threatened by cyclists on footpaths, and hostile to smug car drivers in comfortable seats pumping noxious fumes into my face. So what happens during public participation in planning? I am torn in three directions and have little to contribute.

2.5 A community planning 'exercise'

Who are the clients for planning this street?

Are the owners or the audience the 'real clients'?

Cities need to encourage cycling - but they can be a nuisance in pedestrian areas