Shift to the Middle in Urban Planning

A city with a high urban literacy rate is a regenerative city. In other words, when you have people collectively  engaged in the process of shaping the places they want to live, you build a thriving place. That is why citizen participation is an important topic in city building. The European Association of Cities in Energy Transition has a whole section about participatory governance.

Urban literacy – the capacity to interpret, shape and communicate urban experiences. An approach based on experiential learning that includes intellectual, physical and emotional capacities.

Luis Patricio

In London Ontario where I live, one of the City’s strategic goals is to increase citizen participation in urban planning. The 2019-2023 Strategic Plan is seeking to “increase opportunities for residents to be informed and participate in local government” and to “increase access to information to support community decision making”. One of the strategies includes a renewed corporate communications strategy. The long-term goal is to create opportunities for everyone to engage and have a sense of belonging in their neighbourhoods and community.

This seems very much aligned with Janette Sadik-Khan’s modus operandi during her term as NYC DOT transportation commissioner from 2007 to 2013. Sadik-Khan made history when she transformed New York’s streetscape from car lanes to plazas, bike lanes and pedestrian streets including the iconics Broadway and Times Square.

The quality of public communication and outreach on this project is as important as the public space and transportation benefits of the plan itself.

Janette Sadik-Khan

The link between ownership and engagement is an obvious one. It is easy to care about something that belongs to you. And it has been applied in cities like La Rochelle and Turin. I use the term ownership here including two basic components. The capacity to influence the future of what you own and to derive benefits from what you own. Those are also the premises of participatory democracy.

The concept of a participatory democracy, where citizens would have a direct say in local decisions in modern democratic societies, started to emerge in the late 70’s in Brazil when the country was  still  under a military regime. It became even more popular in the 80’s after the first democratic elections. One of the most successful examples is the participatory budget process developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil –  process where citizens are invited to share their opinion about how city resources should be allocated. The model has been adopted and adapted in hundreds of cities around the world, including here in Canada. 

I first got involved with participatory processes ten years ago and since then I have witnessed many attempts from local governments. And even though there is no clear path to a successful process, I noticed they have a few challenges in common.

Challenges for citizens

The first challenge is information. How to ensure citizens have a sufficient level of understanding about: 

  • Available options
  • Limitations (physical, political, economic) 
  • Potential implications
  • Other stakeholders needs and perceptions

The second challenge is motivation. How to get active participants “in the room” who are representative of the affected communities and that took the time to get informed. In an era of misinformation and busyness, people face multiple challenges. Understanding those challenges can provide some insights about how to improve community engagement. Basic questions such as who, when, how and where community engagement happens can be very helpful.

To address those two challenges, we need to foster Planning Citizens. People who are familiar with their neighbourhood streets and meet their neighbours on a regular basis in planned situations, like a park cleanup or a street party, and also in spontaneous ones when you go for a jog or visit a local cafe, for example. This might not give them all the technical information they need for urban planning decisions but it certainly provides a much better understanding of the physical and social realities of their neighbourhood.

Notice also that these encounters go beyond people’s cliques. The one thing they will have in common with the people they regularly meet in all those different ways on the neighbourhood streets is the neighbourhood itself. Not their job, not their religion, not their income, not their favourite sports team, sometimes not even the school their kids go to. This holds true for mixed-use neighbourhoods. And I use mixed-use in the Jacobsian sense including old/new buildings, multiple generations, different levels of the socio-economic strata and other forms of physical and cultural diversity.

To meet their neighbours in multiple situations of low pressure and fun increases the level of trust and empathy among community members that is fundamental to discussing topics that might have a huge impact on their lives. It is an ongoing process to build trust, share information and make community decisions. To accomplish all that in public participation meetings is an  unrealistic expectation. To weave a strong social fabric, we must allow it to grow organically over time and the urban form must be designed to invite those connections that will allow the depth and diversity to emerge.

Challenges for planners

This brings us to the other side of the community engagement equation, we have the city planners tasked with the increasingly complex challenge of city design and building. They have to consider multiple overlapping systems with an astronomical amount of data input. Add to that all the constraints and multiple crises we are facing. To be able to process all that information and actually get some work done, there is a tendency to compartmentalize the systems, aggregate the information and follow standard practices.

The city planner’s challenges are the same as those mentioned above –  information and motivation– though in a different way. Each neighbourhood has its unique wants and needs. Following the book with big-picture data is not enough. But how to acquire the granular information or even get to the streets to analyse the challenges with all their senses when there is so much urgent work to be done in the office.

We need to encourage more Advocacy Planners. A term and concept launched in 1965 by planner-lawyer Paul Davidoff. The social and political dimensions of urban planning are a core part of the practice and academic program today. That is due to the diligent work of many like Mr. Davidoff who urged planners to look beyond the physical aspects of the city. Organizations such as Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR), the Planners of Colour Interest Group (POGIC) and Urban Planning Aid (UPA) are examples of planners that go beyond the inclusion of social dimensions in their planning projects or the ephemeral community engagement during a project. They develop long term relationships with communities in order to better understand the communities’ needs and even provide assistance in how to respond to planning proposals. In many cases, they focus on vulnerable populations who usually are not on the table or don’t know how to articulate their needs in a way that truly represents their opinion to City Officials.

The shift to the middle in urban planning

Planning citizens and advocacy planners are more informed and motivated. They move towards each other and integrate external aspects (buildings, systems, behaviours, and actions) with internal aspects (cultural, emotional, psychological). The most influential theorists and practitioners, including Jan Gehl in his studies of Public Life, Jane Jacobs in her ballet of the street and Richard Sennett in his ethics for the Cité and the Ville recognize the importance of bringing those two aspects. Marilyn Hamilton also calls our attention to the individual and collective aspects of the urban dynamics in a framework called Integral City. A city that not only is sustainable but also regenerates the ecoregion in which it is located.

Those two movements from citizens and planners represent a shift to the middle. The concept was originally applied by Pillar to illustrate the nonprofit & private business continuum. In an urban planning context, the opposite ends of the continuum are a citizen whose only concern is his/her own personal interest and the planner who lost touch with the human scale. As they shift to the middle, the citizen spends more time in public spaces, gets more involved in community life and more engaged with civic matters. The planners seek to understand the social impacts of their project and reach out to the community to teach and learn from them. Both enriching the social fabric and the body of knowledge necessary for city building.

Citizens and planners have different facets of the same challenges. More than that, they are part of the solution to each other as they increase the urban literacy rate of the city as a whole. The collective capacity to interpret, shape and share the urban experience is what will enable us to improve life in cities.

One of the most important lessons emerging from the shift to the middle that will foster higher urban literacy is to recognize the public space, particularly the streets, as a place to host shared, multifaceted, experiential learning. From Jane to Janette. Direct Observation and Experiential Learning still are the most powerful ways to transformative and collaborative action. With all the technical knowledge we’ve accumulated and the technology we’ve developed to share it, it is the public life in the streets that helps us understand where we live and who we are, more than anything else in the world.


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