Real democracy requires democracy in planning

loading Lo Barnechea.

A new culture is being cultivated in Penang, which often goes unnoticed. New approaches to policy formulations are seldom noted partly because the effects are not immediate and partly because they appear too mundane and technical to be written about by journalists. Nevertheless, they are there, and in the longer term, they are the nuts and bolts of lasting change.

When I attended the One-Stop Centre (OSC) committee meeting earlier this year, one of my long-held suspicions was confirmed: development planning really is elitist. There were experts from the local government and state and federal agencies – architects, town planners, engineers, fire safety experts and even religious experts. There were also experts from the private sector, representing developers, a duplicate counterpart of the composition of the OSC technical committee, engineers and even more architects and town planners.

In short, the OSC is a confederation of experts. Perhaps rightly so, because we do not want our buildings and homes to be built by the untrained. Yet having development planned and approved by experts poses a problem: the common people almost always have no say in how their townships are designed and built. We become mere passive consumers of development.

This year, Penang Institute launched a new project in conjunction with our ongoing research on urbanisation. We hosted a few private screenings of the documentary “Urbanized” in Penang, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Kota Kinabalu to an audience of policymakers, local government officials, architects, urban planners, engineers and NGOs interested in the issue of urbanisation. The documentary features best practices and perspectives on urban development from around the world, adopted by advocates, experts and policymakers.

A key idea presented in the film is the “democratisation of urban development and planning”. I use this term to describe development processes that involve consultation with various stakeholders, including residents and taxpayers, and not just the experts. The film concludes with the episode on a high-speed rail project in the city of Stuttgart, Germany. It shows how government can no longer afford to ignore public opinion in development planning. The city government of Stuttgart suffered grave defeat in the 2009 local government election following massive public unhappiness over the Stuttgart 21 high-speed rail project.

One example of a democratic development planning process highlighted in “Urbanized” is the Lo Barnechea social housing scheme in Santiago, Chile. The scheme was meant as a resettlement for the urban poor, mostly squatters in Lo Barnechea, an area consisting of many upmarket neighbourhoods. The idea is to have the poor resettled within the proximity of “good neighbourhoods”, with easy access to social facilities and economic activities. This is contrary to the Malaysian version of social housing scheme where its residents are more often than not alienated from healthy interactions with the wider community and cut off from jobs and other economic opportunities. Such exclusion risks turning our social housing projects into ghettos and slums. In many cases, this ghetto phenomenon is caused by the lack of understanding on the part of planners about the needs of those who will eventually stay in the housing schemes.

The planning of the Lo Barnechea social housing scheme was done in consultation with would-be residents rather than through the conventional top-down approach by experts. Its architects sat down with the people to discuss the project. Using this approach, the experts not only had a better understanding of the needs of the dwellers, but they also discovered little user-community idiosyncrasies that experts often miss when using a top-down approach in planning.

In the film, an architect shares how policymakers usually take it for granted that the poor prefer to be given a hot water shower system in their new units in the social housing scheme, given a choice between that and a bath tub. However, the project discovered that residents actually prefer to have a bath tub. For the squatters, the luxury of having an abundance of clean water is not something to be taken for granted. Furthermore, most of the new homeowners cannot afford the cost of a hot water shower early on. That can come later at the owner's own pace and affordability. The consultative planning process allows both the planners and the community to shape the nature of development based on actual needs and necessities on the ground, thus leading to a more targeted solution of urban problems.

Both the MPPP and MPSP have taken several measures to break out of the status quo in development planning towards a more democratic process involving residents and taxpayers. In collaboration with the Penang Women’s Development Corporation (PWDC), both councils are working on a three-year pilot programme to implement a gender responsive budget (GRB) in their respective operations. GRB not only provides a more socially just framework for the allocation of local government resources but it also aims to democratise the budget planning process.

One activity under the GRB pilot project this year involves the planning for community safety and security. Two social housing schemes, the Projek Perumahan Rakyat Jalan Sungai (MPPP) and Projek Perumahan Rakyat Ampangan (MPSP), were identified to take part in this experimental approach towards planning. Residents in both housing schemes were surveyed and interviewed according to gender and age to find out what their security concerns were. Officials then held focus group discussions with the residents to map lifestyle patterns and security concerns in the area.

For example, children were asked where they usually gathered to play, and if and why they felt unsafe in certain locations. Women were asked if they thought certain spots should have additional lights or even a CCTV system. Similar discussions were also held with the menfolk as well as senior citizens. The residents then voted on which safety and security features they should spend on within the allocated budget. Finally, a dialogue would be held with the MPPP and MPSP respectively as well as related government agencies to finalise the actual implementation.

As we can see, this approach not only allows residents to voice their views on development in their own area, but it also provides an opportunity for city and municipal planners to develop a more in-depth understanding of the locality they are working on. Consequently, development planning will better reflect local needs.

Earlier this year in May, the MPSP held a budget dialogue with representatives from Rukun Tetangga, residents' associations, village committees and various local NGOs to discuss the formulation of the council's 2013 budget. While the representation of the dialogue can certainly be expanded, this once again represented a move away from the “confederation of experts” model because representatives from the community are being consulted at an important stage of policymaking, that is, deciding how much to spend and where to spend. Undoubtedly, these are all small steps towards a greater democratisation of development planning.

Steven Sim is the senior executive officer of the Penang Institute and a councillor of the MPSP.

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