Skills and legitimacy

The year 2020 has in many ways become synonymous with the future we have to prepare for. Not only the European institutions, but also national, regional and metropolitan governments use it as a focal point for strategic planning. For that future to be more inclusive, sustainable and prosperous, choices have to be made on a daily basis. In order to guide those choices, strategic documents are produced at different levels of governance. The mother of all strategic documents most likely is the European Union’s Europe 2020, a 37-page document that for non-experts translates into four words: “smart, sustainable, inclusive growth”. It could be argued that it requires quite a bit of expertise to use these four words as a lodestar for future planning.

On a more local level, city governments are also expected to publish their strategic visions. London has its London Plan, Brussels soon its PRDD (plan regional de développement durable) and Barcelona its PEMB (pla estratègic metropolità de Barcelona). Having these plans for larger cities is even a conditionality put to candidate members of the European Union. So for Turkey to become a member state, Istanbul needs a strategic plan.

In a sense this is a good thing. It forces those in power to be explicit about how they see the future of their cities, and where their priorities lie. Motor vehicle access versus air pollution and affordable housing versus lucrative real estate developments, are only two of the many opposites governments have to choose between.

Until not so long ago, these choices were prepared by experts, executed by the government, and ratified by a body representing the people. Actually, that is how it still goes in many places. However, the issues have become so complex, that the experts who grasp the fulness of the issues at hand have become very rare, if they exist at all. Do we expect a traffic planner to be a chemist to understand particulate matter, a meteorologist to predict the behaviour of car exhaust in cities, and a respiratory specialist to evaluate how citizens are affected? Because there are so many things involved, experiences become more and more specific, and increasingly difficult to predict by means of expert knowledge. That is one of the reasons why innovative governments increasingly call upon citizens and their experience to help with making projections about the future of the city.

The European Union’s Toledo-declaration, the guiding document on urban policy, still talks about ‘citizen participation as a tool’; yet others have understood that involving citizens as an instrument is not the way forward, but that the future is about co-creation. Imagining and projecting a future together so that all involved take ownership of this future and are more likely to implement it. Co-creation of strategic plans increases the chances of citizens knowing why certain choices were made, and what their repercussion might be.

The co-creation of urban strategies still raises the issue of who is able to take part – a matter of competence – and who is allowed to take part – a matter of legitimacy. All too often the competence question is solved in an exclusionary manner: those who do not have the skills can not take part. It would be interesting to find out which skills are required to take part in the discussion. These can take many forms: technical – reading maps and statistics; pedagogical – being able to share information in a way that a large public can understand; social – hold a large meeting and arrive at a shared conclusion; and many others.

The legitimacy question has both practical and more political sides to it. On a practical level it could be said that until now those who do not have the required competence are excluded – too young, not familiar with the technicalities, not able to translate the personal and anecdotical into the more universal, and so on. However there is also a political side to it. Urban governance happens through different elites of whom the elected representatives are not the only ones; economic, social and cultural or intellectual elites also hold power. Not all of them are aware of the fact that the practices they consider ‘normal’ exclude citizens for whom this is not so normal. Take the example of meetings and producing written statements: not all citizens consider this as the most natural way of expressing their opinion. The question here is not how we make sure all citizens can become part of the elites, but rather, how do citizens who are not part of an elite get the legitimacy to express their view on the future of their city.

These two questions – which skills are required to take part, and how do citizens who are not part of an elite get the legitimacy to express their view – will be subject of a two day workshop in Barcelona held on 18 and 19 June 2014. The aim is not to come up with a list of answers to these questions, but rather to scan the issues and consider their consequences for co-creating strategic planning documents.


By @jimvotes from CityMine(d) (London)