Urban Planners, Private Property and Mango Trees – In conversation with Dr. Shlomo Angel – Part 3

In the concluding post of this three-part interview, Vishnu Prasad of IFMR Finance Foundation speaks to Dr. Shlomo (Solly) Angel, adjunct professor at NYU and senior research scholar at the NYU Stern Urbanization Project about his personal experiences with participatory planning and a mango tree in Bangkok, and the enduring legacy of the Oregon experiment. Previous posts covered Prof. Angel’s views on urban governance challenges in India, how to create affordable housing in Indian cities, the Making Room paradigm, and its relevance to Indian cities.

Q: Going back to one of your earliest works- ‘The Oregon Experiment’, what do you think is the enduring legacy of the experiment? In countries like India, city planning is still a product of centralised master plans and citizens have very limited say in the design of cities. In this context, how relevant is the idea that people who inhabit built environments have a right to design the spaces they occupy? How can this idea be incorporated into city planning in countries like India to design more liveable, ‘organic’ cities?

A: If I were to go back to our discussion on the efficacy of Mayors in governance, I think that there is greater participation from people in cities that elect their own officials. The whole decentralisation movement is motivated by the need for feedback from people and the need for participation. There is participatory budgeting that is slowly becoming a global movement. The right to the city movement that you mentioned before also asks for more participation. But I think that the discussion will remain theoretical unless you specify the realm of participation in advance. What do we need participation for? Participation is costly in terms of both money and time. You could end up with the wrong set of people during these exercises- people who have a lot of time on their hands, people who have axes to grind and therefore, make a lot of noise. People who need to participate and the people whose voices need to be heard are often left out. It reminds me of a famous George Orwell quote, “I gave up socialism when I decided I had better things to do with my evenings.”

The whole notion of user engagement needs to be more refined and planned in advance. Feedback must be sought on very specific aspects of planning and should be very simple. Calling for more participation on very general themes could lead to appropriation of the process by wrong people to do the wrong things.

Q: One reaction that you often hear as a reaction to the central idea of the Oregon experiment is that urban planners and not people inhabiting built environments are best suited to design these spaces. Do you hear these reactions often and if yes, how do you respond to them?

A: I am in complete agreement with you and I don’t think that planners know best. I think this happens because planners perceive without evidence. Often, they don’t even listen let alone collect data on what is happening on the ground. They can be very ideological, bureaucratic and ignorant in their approaches. Indian planners are no exception as you can imagine. I think that much of the decisions that planners take are contextual and needs a deep understanding of the specific context and the people.

To give you an example when I was working in Bangkok on a slum-up gradation project in the slum of Jerusalem Village, a slum of about 200 families. The families said that their top concern was the lack of a road in the slum. We tried hard to get them a road by talking to the land owners of the surrounding areas and the city officials but we couldn’t. So, we went back and asked what their other concerns were. They said that they were very worried about fire breaking out in the slum because most houses were made out of wood and people predominantly cooked on open stoves. We decided to build a fire protection system using water from a canal that ran nearby. During a discussion on the fire protection system with the residents, an old man kept asking in Thai “What about the mango? What about the mango?” I wondered what the fire protection system had to do with mangoes. Finally, I realised that he was referring to the fact that the location of the main pipe that brought water from the canal cut through a big mango tree. If you wanted to preserve the tree, you had to change the location of the pipeline. This old man was the only one that was aware of this. How will urban planners know about the mango tree if they don’t engage with the community?

Urban planners often bring all the technical expertise but they lack a sense of the context. There has to be a meeting of minds between the experts and the people actually living in the ground. But I stress that this cannot be open ended participation because it could easily involve the wrong people. The real challenge is to involve the right voices in the community that really have the interest of the community at heart. We need to identify the people who can rise above their parochial concerns and articulate the real concerns and thoughts of the community. This makes participatory planning a tall agenda since the requirements from the people of the community are very substantial.

Q: You are aware of our initiative in the small city of Srirangapatna, where we are trying to work with the citizens to build a 25 year vision for the city. We are exploring the idea of actively engaging the citizens in long-term city planning using visual models that enable citizens to envisage the city they live in and decentralised planning tools like mobile applications for city planning. What strategies and broad principles do you think will be effective in a participatory planning model like this? Can you speak about participatory planning models that seek to actively engage citizens that have been successful elsewhere? Or are cities very large units to work with, should we look at sub-units like wards in cities to work with?

A: Let me speak about the institution of private property. The institution of private property is precisely this- you have a plot of land and within this plot of land, you are responsible for planning and designing and doing whatever it is that you need to do. We create this regime and we create a lot of these plots so that a lot of individuals, families, firms, cooperatives and societies can plan and engage in making these decisions. The idea of dividing the entire city in smaller portions is precisely in tune with the idea of participatory planning. The first element of such regimes is removing unnecessary constraints on what people can do with their land and how they can develop it- giving people more freedom to decide what they want to do with their land. It is not a top-down approach but instead, allows people to use their creativity, and their information about the market to create an environment that they desire.

This is happening in the US on a very large scale with housing communities that can draw their own rules, and make their own zoning and planning rules. Even though individuals have the right to public property in these places, they decide on a common set of planning rules for their area. This shows that you need to start building from the bottom-up by working with larger neighbourhood housing associations or cooperatives that have been empowered to make decisions. Another example is that of certain business districts, where all the business in that area have agreed to pay certain monthly charges for doing certain things related to the environment, cleaning of the area, development of street furniture, taking care of homeless people in the area etc.

Q: In recent years, there have been several technological developments in the field of urban planning- the advent of ‘big data’ and decentralised modes of planning through mobile applications and other such technology being most noteworthy. How do you think these technological developments will shape the future of urban planning? Will this increase the need to make planning more participatory?

A: It is hard for me to judge where these developments lead to. But I do think that there are many interesting uses that these technological developments can be put to. We are now able to do certain things better than before thanks to these developments. For example, the municipality is responsible for fixing potholes in the city but they don’t necessarily know where these potholes are. If you had a movement where everybody that sees a pothole could take a picture of it along with its coordinates, and this information appeared on a public map, it becomes harder for the municipality to ignore the problem. You could imagine the same with broken streetlights and other types of infrastructure. This enables the people to provide constant feedback to the government about its performance and services and this will definitely have an impact. These developments are therefore a good way to improve the accountability of governments.

These developments will also make planning more evidence-based. Currently, a lot of planners collect data but never really use it in the planning process. For example, in the case of affordable housing that we talked about earlier, we could easily track how affordable housing has really become- how much people are paying as rent, how much houses cost in the slums or squatter homes. This idea of having more information will force planning to become more evidence-based, which it currently is not.

Listen to the entire interview in the podcast below (wait for a few seconds for the audio to buffer):