Berlin PIL Workshop Recap: Participatory Urban Development — is it possible?

Written by Jan Dohnke

On Friday, the 10th of October, I had the pleasure of presenting part of my work concerning participation in urban development at the Stanford Peace Innovation Lab in Berlin.  I was not familiar with the format.  However, I was looking forward to a diverse and fruitful discussion about some crucial aspects faced by Berlin and other city governments worldwide which concern how and to what end its citizens should be involved in the decision-making process of urban development when this question arises. Considering the increasing difficulties that urban governments are facing, the inclusion of its citizens in urban development seems logical. However, when citizens claim their part in urban governance, this issue can make it to the headlines in different guises, especially in the form, more or less, of local urban protests.

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In short, participation in urban development is facing three dilemmas.

The first dilemma concerns the topic of communication and representation. This implies that most people do not participate for lack of resources, such as time and knowledge, leaving the process to the “usual suspects”, mostly white, well-educated, middle-class citizens. However, this group is still on uneven ground compared to the professionals from administration and the economic sector, which very often leads to frustration and bad communication. While this can probably be remedied with a better institutional design and corresponding inclusionary measures, there is a growing sense that, in many cases, only a discussion of the “how” is wanted, not the discussion of the “if” of certain urban developments. This functional insertion into a hierarchy where citizens have little control poses the second dilemma, which has led to an increase in the use of tools of direct democracy by citizens. Finally, the third dilemma points to the question of who actually has a say in urban development, which leads to the issue of private property. Property has increasingly turned from a good that has to be protected into a tool of influence in urban development, thus linking decision-making power to private ownership and financial resources. Correspondingly, the aim of urban development is linked more and more to profitability and less and less to the use value for the city and its residents. This cycle of an increasingly commercialized urban development,  the reduced participation in terms of scope and participants, and how this cycle can be broken was the aim and topic of the ensuing discussion.

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After a short retreat into smaller working groups, the different participants presented their ideas, suggestions, or remarks, very often based on their own experiences in their respective native hometowns. At first, I did not know what to expect, as the topic of private property is a delicate one and is easily misunderstood.  This very often leads to a distorted and exaggerated discussion.  However, this was not the case at all.  A lively and fruitful discussion followed, bringing up distinct points of view concerning possible solutions, such as stronger regulations and a common understanding about the importance of the issue at hand.  At the end, I had the feeling that all participants left with valuable insights and shared experiences, making this a very worthwhile experience that I will be happy to contribute to again in the future.

Jan Dohnke is a researcher at the Institute of Geography, Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel where he is part of the urban and population geography working group. His research focuses on urban governance and participation.

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