Learning Cities: Urban Transitions (1)

How can cities become better learners? Faced with changing conditions in everything from climate to energy and food availability -- cities need to be able to learn from and respond to uncertain times. But how? Established institutions are resistant to change. The physical shape of the city and its infrastructure ties us into old ways of doing things. What we know is also familiar. How can we encourage ourselves to take a risk on doing things differently? Those were the questions of the day, at the opening of the Urban Transitions workshop currently running in Manchester.

The consensus that emerged was that we need more open and participatory planning processes. That, in itself, is not news. Participation of one kind or another has been a favourite in cities striving to be more sustainable. Often it takes the form of large and flashy one-off processes of public consultation. The input of thousands is synthesized into a vision and key goals that define sustainability for the municipality. Implementation though, is often difficult (or never really attempted). Presenters in Manchester argued for a substantially different approach.

City authorities can't just implement utopias,” said Rene Kemp, researcher from UNU-MERIT in the Netherlands, “You can't limit collaborative planning to one time events.” Detailing an approach called Transformative Evaluation, he argues that collaborative planning, reflexion, and innovation need to be included into the basic practises of our institutions. In a similar vein Bernhard Truffer, from Cirus in Switzerland, argued that more interdisciplinary and inclusive planning processes need to be embedded in the way we govern our cities. “It isn't just the end result that we should be focused on” he elaborated, “the processes themselves create real change.”

Bringing planners and decision makers together with residents and professionals from other fields encourages everyone involved to consider innovative possibilities beyond the options they already know and understand. New options, like decentralize power generation, can be put on the table when they would other be dismissed out of hand because they are unfamiliar and poorly understood:

“Radically new alternatives were considered," Truffer said discussing an infrastructure planning process in Switzerland, "and in the end were seen much more favourably than they were initially. At the same time, incremental solutions – the kind that tend to come from conventional planning processes – fare very badly when people have a chance to consider a broader set of options.”

The question of who to involve, and how, is very important. Many proposed approaches called for small numbers of relatively expert participants to be brought together. Often these were key decision makers within the city, already in positions of power, but separated by professional or institutional silos.

Malcolm Eames, of the Low Carbon Research Institute (Cardiff), presented on a Citizen Science for Sustainability program (SuScit) that bridges the gap between these elite groups and poor and marginalized urban communities. “Sustainability has to be about more than justs reducing emissions. We need to be addressing those issues while also creating cities that all of us can live in in an equitable way.” Having truly productive conversations between residents and experts is no easy thing. SuCit uses citizen created short films as the basis for a multiple stage where residents and researchers collaborate to create local sustainability plans.

In a paper that touched on ideas that I've covered here before, I looked at why this inclusivity is so important. The outside linkages that it creates are the perfect solvent for loosening the constraints of trained incapacity. Institutionalized into the management structures and professional culture of an organization, it makes innovation possible and large scale change more likely.

Doing planning this way may take more time. But the impacts of our decisions, particularly around infrastructure that will last for 30 or 40 years, will be around for much longer. In that context, it should be a pretty easy argument to say that we are better off taking a bit longer to make the best decisions that we can.


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.