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< prev - next > Social and economic development Social Development participatory_urban_planning_KnO 100615 (Printable PDF)
Urban participatory planning
Practical Action
Sans Frontiers UK outlining some of the issues affecting a slum community in Nairobi, Kenya
Credit: ASF-UK, Change by Design Workshop, 2011 (Report forthcoming)
Preconditions for effective participation in urban environments: Political
support and a dynamic civil society
The 2009 UN Habitat Global Report on Human Settlements has as its focus the planning of
sustainable cities. Its initial introductory paragraphs highlight that it was found through an
analysis of existing approaches to urban planning systems that very little has changed over the
past 100 years. Through technocratic and inflexible approaches, planning systems are ‘often
contributors to urban problems rather than functioning as tools for human and environmental
improvement’ (UN Habitat 2009:3) as they should be. This has led to calls for a change in the
current approaches to urban planning, and in particular the ways in which urban planning is
failing “to accommodate the way of life of the majority of inhabitants in rapidly growing and
largely poor and informal cities” (ibid:12), contributing to rising levels of both “social and
spatial” (ibid) inequality, evident in the growing number, size and density of slum settlements in
many developing cities as well as a growing number of gated and spatially segregated
communities. In order to change the current processes of urban planning that have facilitated
the development of highly segregated and exclusionary urban centres, the UN Habitat report
identifies “participatory and partnership processes” (ibid:15) at the neighbourhood level as
among some of the key innovative approaches that have made significant improvements to
processes of urban planning.
There are a number of conditions that are stipulated by the UN as a minimum requirement in
ensuring that participation is “meaningful, socially inclusive and contributes to improving urban
planning” (ibid:28):
a political system that allows and encourages active citizen participation
a legal basis for local politics and planning that specifies how the outcomes of
participatory processes will influence plan preparation and decision-making
mechanisms for socially marginalized groups to have a voice in both representative
politics and participatory planning processes
Similarly, Nick Devas identifies “a better understanding by those in power of the livelihoods of
the poor, political commitment from the leadership, resources to do something about the
situation and a dynamic civil society that brings pressure to bear on the decision making
process” (Devas 2002:220) as factors necessary in achieving an urban governance structure that
is responsive to the needs of urban poor communities, also echoed in what Patrick Heller states
as the necessary (but not sufficient) preconditions for decentralization to be successful (Heller
For the urban poor to participate effectively in urban environments, there needs to be a
transition made by many governments to recognise the rights of all those living within their
boundaries, and in particular the rights of poor urban communities to engage with the political
decision making process and ensure that everyone’s views are heard. In order to ensure that local
and national governments effectively respond to the population’s needs, there need to be in
place local institutions “with the power and the legal basis to allow them to negotiate effectively
with powerful external agencies or companies, even to question the proposals they put forward,
and to hold these agencies or companies to account if they contravene agreements
Satterthwaite (2007:71). The decision making process in itself needs to be transparent in order
to ensure that those in power can be held accountable in recognizing and responding to local
While the commencement of a successful participatory planning process depends on the good
will and commitment of the partners involved, there also needs to be awareness created, and
efforts made to ensure that those who may be excluded from dominant social and political
networks are included in participatory processes. As noted previously, there are a variety of urban
institutions (including those of the urban poor) that may initiate a planning process with a view
of bringing partners and stakeholders on board to find solutions to local development problems.