Once upon a time people designed and made their own places. Cities, towns, and villages were organic manifestations of local culture, knowledge, and materials. Whether the warrens of European streets, the villages of indigenous peoples or the public squares of colonial American towns, such people-built places are now celebrated for their authenticity and charm.
Now decisions about the built environment are made within government bureaucracies who, in the spirit of democracy, attempt to engage their constituencies in the decision-making process. Sometimes this arrangement works, and other times it collapses spectacularly. The skills and methods of community engagement end up as the fulcrum determining the balance of success.
How did we end up here?
The story can be traced back to the birth of city planning in the early 20th century. This when control of the built environment was shifted into the hands of “experts” in order to address the squalid conditions of our post-Industrial Revolution cities.
While this professionalization of municipal management helped bring order, cleanliness and efficiency to our towns and cities, it also contributed a bulging chapter to America’s dark legacy of environmental injustice and systemic racism. For example, vast highway building projects and urban renewal developments, implemented by un-elected planners and officials with no accountability to voters, would typically plow through vibrant Black neighborhoods in the name of progress.
In the 1960’s revolts against these top-down planning projects emerged in tandem with a general skepticism towards the government and the cultural status quo. The historic social, civic, and environmental protests of this time fueled a movement towards participation, engagement, and a place-based perspective.
In other words, people wanted their power back.
There are two sides to activism: building and blocking. While organized protests of the 1960s were useful for blocking the most egregious and destructive government overreach and civil rights violations, new models were needed to build inclusive and collaborative place-based decision-making that put authority back into the hands of the people.
The architecture and design professions answered the call with an explosion of service-oriented community-design centers in the ’60s and ’70s. These service-based centers provided pro-bono and low-cost design and planning support for organized communities that wanted people-led decision-making.
Over time, professionals developed tools and strategies for involving people in design and planning. These practices (community meetings, surveys, design charrettes, etc.) became de rigueur, and now people have come to expect that their voices be considered whenever something significant is happening to the places where they live.
That’s a check in the “win” column for people-powered Democracy.
Now, like an awkward young couple in an arranged marriage, municipal decision-makers grapple with this expectation (or requirement) and struggle with its implementation.
Sadly, top-down led community engagement is often done insincerely with predetermined outcomes or token community influence. This is “Checkbox Engagement” – done to meet the expectations that communities are somehow involved in a project, but in reality, their opinions won’t make a difference.
On the other hand, I have also seen communities take advantage of a community engagement process to stall and derail a project, often putting narrow self-interests above greater social benefits. It only takes one or two people to send a project spiraling towards an “Us” vs “Them” positioning where everyone loses.
And in between are incredible success stories and inspiring testaments to what can be achieved through collective effort: Bold civic visions fueled by diverse place-based wisdom, neighbors working in tandem to reclaim abandoned spaces, or vibrant art-filled public spaces expressing local cultures.
Such people-powered local decision-making is baked into our democratic system and embedded in our cultural values. I believe it’s a vision worth fighting for.
Democracy’s origin is in male-centered Greek city-states, and its American conception was envisioned at a time when the country was largely rural. Now a vast majority of Americans live in cities containing complex and diverse populations, layers of civic bureaucracy, and challenging intersections of social, cultural, and ecological issues.
The experiment of Democracy is evolving to meet this new context. In its slow unfolding journey through time and place, community engagement and public participation is the leading edge.
Self-governance and shared decision-making isn’t easy. In America, they are just starting to get to know each other.