Communities, Localism, and Participatory Planning at The Open Office

Is it possible that the leadership-in-local-government-pendulum has swung too far in the direction of transparency and participation that the model described below has created the problem of not using the special knowledge and experience of professional urban planners? Having strong opinions and desires about how one wants the street to look does not mean one is capable of devising the best plan for one’s neighbourhood.

A new project in London has tried to engage members of the community in the planning of their community in response to the Localism Act of 2011. The vision of this act was to give the people living in a neighbourhood the agency to design and direct the development of the shops and residential districts in their community.

The fantasy at work here is wouldn’t it be great if we could all be planners and built environment specialists? It is a pretty big leap from dreaming about a better community to actually drafting policy. Another element at work here the emphasis on developing the process at work so that more people are involved with the dreaming and decision making activities, instead of the old model in which specialists behind closed doors in central planning offices are tasked with the responsibility of coming up with better solutions for neighbourhood designs.

Apparently, the project has yielded some good results with five plans on view in the gallery at the Architecture Foundation in London for a week.

What are the implications for other community and community-driven projects? First, the emphasis on participatory planning shows that even the products—five case-study areas designed by volunteers—are unresolved. No decision has been made and the process is ongoing. Second, tasking volunteers with little to no training in urban planning means there has to be an element of education so they know just what are the necessary elements or components of their projects. Third, the exhibition includes workstations for more people to get involved, which means that insofar as the process has successfully solicited the participation of a small team of volunteers, more are wanted and needed.

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