EDITORIAL: Rethinking urban renewal

Mon, Apr 29, 2013 - Page 8

The Council of Grand Justices’ constitutional interpretation on the Urban Renewal Act (都市更新條例) on Friday ruled that part of the act violated people’s property rights and freedom of residence, which are protected by the constitution. Since the pace of urban renewal projects is accelerating, the interpretation presents a good opportunity for the government to review regulations on urban renewal projects to reduce the controversies surrounding them.

The grand justices’ interpretation, requested by people who refused to take part in four controversial urban renewal projects, including the Wenlin Yuan (文林苑) project in Taipei’s Shilin District (士林). The interpretation said the act did not guarantee individuals involved in cases access to relevant information or the opportunity to voice their opinions.

The grand justices also said the act did not demand the authorities deliver all relevant information to all legal property owners affected by projects and that authorities should hold public hearings with all parties and send a finalized version of all the pros and cons of urban renewal projects to all legal owners of land and buildings.

While the grand justices denied a request to review the legality of the Taipei City Government’s forced demolition of the Wang (王) family’s houses in the Wenlin Yuan case and did not order an immediate termination of the controversial articles in the act that they deemed unconstitutional, Taipei and other city governments must abandon old practices that are in favor of the developers and adopt a “people first” approach to handling urban renewal projects.

Urban renewal is crucial for the revitalization of a city and transformation of its landscape. It can bring positive changes to a city like Taipei, which is filled with sheet-iron houses and ugly buildings thanks to the former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime that treated the capital as a temporary base during its war with the Chinese Communist Party and did not properly plan the city.

Pushing urban renewal while protecting people’s rights to freedom of residence is a challenge. To strike a balance between the two, there should be active public participation in urban renewal projects, and the government should put more effort into helping affected people, while conducting social impact assessments as part of the project approval process.

As the grand justices said, the threshold for a construction firm to proceed with an urban renewal project — consent from 10 percent of the residents involved — makes it too easy for developers to initiate such projects. The consent ratio for developers to obtain final approval for urban renewal projects from local governments — between 50 percent and 80 percent of households involved — is also too low.

Urban renewal should seek to maximize the benefits to the community, and every effort should be made to minimize the adverse impact on people affected by these projects.

Urban renewal inevitably causes disruption because it would be impossible to carry out without tearing down buildings and relocating people. Because of this inevitable disruption, local governments should take more action to protect people’s rights.

In the case of the Wenlin Yuan project, the negotiation platform initiated by the Taipei City Government with the Wang family, the 36 households that agreed to participate the project and the developer is a good start for the city to rectify its mistakes and seek to protect the rights of all concerned parties.

The city government and other authorities must learn from the Wang case and keep in mind that the principle of majority rule should not be applied to all urban renewal projects, and the rights of the minority should not be sacrificed in the name of public interest.