Thu, Nov 02, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Cities need to be readjusted through democratic planning

By Christine Auclair and Mahmoud Al Burai

Cities, the American-Canadian author Jane Jacobs once said, are engines for national prosperity and economic growth, but in their current form, modern cities are also catalysts of inequality and environmental degradation.

The share of city dwellers in poverty is growing: 33 percent live in slums and 75 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions originate in metropolitan areas.

Statistics like these should give us pause — are cities really the best way to organize human life?

They can be, but only with significant adjustments to how they are planned, built and managed. For city-led growth to empower a sustainable, prosperous future, governments and developers must reintroduce a user-centered approach to urbanization.

Most cities fail to include key stakeholders in the planning process, leading to exclusionary development.

Consider the ubiquitous housing project on the edge of town, a characteristic of many poorly planned cities. Built in the middle of nowhere, these multi-unit eyesores are often cut off from public transportation and other services, compounding residents’ isolation from the urban core.

However, design flaws like these, which have both economic and social implications, are just the beginning. Even more worrying to urban planning professionals is that in many places the entire planning process — the way we think about cities, how they are used and by whom — is flawed.

Even the best-intentioned planning departments do not always put the public first. Part of this reflects uncertainty about who “owns” a city. Residents might call a city “theirs,” but government leaders often act in ways that suggest otherwise.

For example, a government seeking to attract investment might equate economic interests with residents’ needs and thus lower environmental standards or tax burdens for businesses.

However, such decisions might lead to deurbanization, with people leaving cities as they become less livable.

The gap between economic viability and environmental responsibility can be especially wide.

Consider the production of traditional, gasoline-powered cars. Although this type of industry might power some cities’ growth today, the public’s growing concern about carbon dioxide emissions from these vehicles is spurring changes in consumer demand. Businesses that can capitalize on such shifts will be better positioned for long-term growth.

Unfortunately, for-profit entities typically fail to see future generations as tomorrow’s customers. Their short-term vision not only hurts their bottom line — it also affects cities by trading immediate gain for quality of life.

What can be done to ensure that urban planning is conducted with the interests of cities’ actual users — particularly their residents — in mind?

Most cities lack a democratic planning process and in many large metropolitan areas inequality is sewn into the social fabric, so institutionalizing participatory planning must be the starting point. Programs that safeguard local democracy by encouraging transparency and accountability are critical.

Residents who are equipped with the knowledge and means to express their views on issues affecting their communities make better neighbors, and planning discussions that take their views into account produce better design.

Because leaders everywhere, under any type of political system, are judged by the livability of the places they oversee, an inclusive planning process should be every city’s goal.

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