SkillUrban Planning – “It’s Not Hard Science”

Urban Planning – “It’s Not Hard Science”

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

With so many interest groups all wanting representation in the decisions that form our living cities, it isn’t easy getting it right. There will be those who are unrepresented, those involved but who do not feel heard, and others still who always get their way and are suspicious of deviation. What can urban planning offer to create meaningful change that benefits citizens, even if they vehemently oppose it?

CityChangers spoke to urban planner Lior Steinberg, founder of Humankind, who has many years of experience in developing spaces and facilitating citizen participation. Through success and failure, he has gathered a great deal of knowledge on gaining ground with urban sustainability. Here he shares some of his most useful and valuable tips for municipalities by involving citizens that want to create positive urban change.

Reframe the Challenges

Take the straightforward option, suggests our expert. While it may sound obvious to anyone knee-deep in new urbanism on a daily basis, to others it’s a strange, mystical world, well out of reach, “even in very forward-thinking cities”.

At its heart, this idea is all about providing spaces where all kinds of people can mix.

“If we create more opportunities for people to just see each other and really see we are all just simple people, we just want to relax, read a nice book, or watch stupid TV, we will be able to succeed in a very difficult mission, which is many, many, many people living in a very, very small space.”

This can break socio-economic and cultural barriers and bring people together to work towards a shared objective. After all, don’t we all just want more comfortable, healthier, happier lives?

Ask What Makes Them Happy…

Municipalities are “strange organisations” that “need to take care of many things”, such as “maintenance, finance, and rules”. As a result, they may claim there’s no time for public consultation. Hogwash!

Sure, time is valuable. So, ask meaningful questions. Not ‘should we pedestrianise this road?’ or ‘would you agree to us removing parking spaces?’ We know we need to do this, so do it. Citizen participation should focus on how to do it, with “just a few questions that later on can be translated to meaningful insights for design”. Our expert offers some surprising suggestions:

  • What is the smell that makes you the happiest?
  • What is your best memory?
  • Where did you fall in love in the city?

Shifting the focus from urban to human elements puts people at the centre of planning. Lior put this into practice at Basel Square in Tel Aviv. Find out more in our CityChanger profile.

… And Accept That Not Everyone Will Be

Urban improvement is complicated. “You need to be ready for people to be very, very angry, which is very difficult.” Somehow, we need to remind populations that “behind this word ‘municipality’ there are real people who want to do something good”. Dialogue, not vitriol, is as important when we disagree as it is when we agree.

This is also when an open-minded municipality enables progress rather than procrastination. Rotterdam, Lior recalls when speaking about his projects, “told us at one point, it doesn’t always need to succeed”. Pleasing everyone is an unrealistic goal – if this is what we assess success against, “then all projects are mostly failures”.

Getting the right goal is key. Be it to try something new, “to get as many people involved” as possible, or simply “create new value”.

Manage expectations. Lior has learnt not to promise too much from the beginning. And when interventions don’t work, “we’ll talk about it and see why we failed. I mean, it’s not hard science, urbanism. It involves people and people are complicated”.

Follow Through

Quoting Christopher Ryan – “We are the only species that lives in zoos of our own design” – Lior reflects on how it is actually very few people who build cities: urban planners and architects who “tend to be from a very specific social group that thinks about their needs” only. The result? A kind of human zoo. “We need to take more people into consideration when we do it.”

Humankind is committed to better participation and co-creation – involving citizens and using their insights to design and activate accessible public spaces. If the project were a concrete post, their input would be the reinforcing steel pin that runs through it and help it weather the storm. If we solicit a public voice, we need to commit to listening to it, and we’ll be glad we did.

Jettison the Jargon

But first we need to speak in terms laypeople of all ages understand. Lior advocates for using simple language to break down the barriers “between decision-makers and professionals and the people that follow”.

“We should not say ‘traffic circulation’, we should just say ‘where cars go’.”

This is one reason his team has created some free online courses for professionals and students in collaboration with Urban Mobility and the EU; to share new urbanism concepts in digestible formats.

Another Brick in the Wall?

When able-bodied adults encounter a road, it can be an annoyance. “But for a child,” or maybe someone with mobility issues, for example, “the road is a wall”. To improve access, safety, happiness in our cities, we must dismantle this wall.

Lior wants to make urbanism cool for kids. One method behind Humankind is “working with teenagers in the neighbourhood, to take pictures of the places they like, so we can map them”. It’s important to bring young voices to the table. Humankind together with El Desafio started the Young City Makers programme. Workshops held over a handful of weeks equip a diverse mix of high schoolers with the “social and practical tools to become city makers”. Not just for a better future, but to facilitate more inclusive places now.

Municipalities beware: with the likes of Lior Steinberg fuelling the movement, maybe young urbanists will be the next disruptive force in modern cities, matching the passion and commitment of Fridays for Future. We’d do well to heed Lior’s advice and start putting people and participation at the forefront of urban development.

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