Why Grassroots Groups Are Key to City Planning

Urban planning used to be the sole terrain of professionals and policy makers. Not anymore. Nowadays, we're seeing resurgence in grassroots and community-based planning.

Take the Better Block approach, which started in Oak Cliff, Dallas, in April 2010. Through this initiative, project leaders Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard organized their community and engaged property owners around a gripping vision: to revitalize an underutilized corridor within 30 days, rather than engaging in years of top-down master planning. In this time, the community transformed the corridor into a bike and pedestrian friendly neighbourhood, with new street markings, lighting, outdoor furniture, and coffee shops, art galleries, and a flower shop in unused buildings.

At the same time, they kept record of each and every zoning law, policy, and ordinance they were breaking. After 30 days, the new "better block" was unveiled, together with a pack of recommendations to council on how to improve planning law and cut red tape. Since then, the project has spread across the globe.

Another group, the Project for Public Spaces, demonstrates how people are finding creative solutions for public spaces ranging from small civic squares to large public transport interchanges. Since 1975, PPS groups have linked public, private, and civic interests in completing more than 2,500 projects in 40 countries.

Planning public spaces in ways that build our communities has been central to planning education, from the Greek philosophers through to Walter Benjamin, Lewis Mumford, Henri Lefebvre, and more contemporary writers such as Richard Sennett, Jan Gehl, and so on.

With these projects in mind, I want to point to three aspects of community planning that are changing planning practice.

  1. Community-based planning knits society together. Community planning pilot projects in Bristol, Kent, and Yorkshire in the United Kingdom have demonstrated that such action plans formed new partnerships to turn around urban decay, design youth programmes, and advance other community initiatives and priorities. Comprehensive planning tools such as CommunityPlanning.net and CommunityPlanningToolkit.org are being made available online to strengthen the local organizations.

    But planning is as much about a shift in power as it is about dialogue. Which leads us to my second point.

  2. Community-based planning has teeth! It is rooted in the grassroots and has an advocacy and lobby function. Slum Dwellers International and NPR report that communities of the Mathare Valley slum of Nairobi, Kenya, collect spatial data using GPS devices and form partnerships with local and international universities to advocate for the development of the slum.
  3. Community-based planning, by nature, produces action-oriented partnerships, which leads to better outcomes. In Cape Town, where I live, there is buzz around the possibilities of design to bridge our socially and racially divided city. Open Streets is a citizen initiative, that, according to the website, is "working to design and promote streets which embed and generate respect for people." It forms part of the official programme of Cape Town's successful bid as World Design Capital 2014, a prestigious accolade bestowed by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID).

These three aspects point toward a new paradigm in planning. When government and the private sector plan cities and urban spaces in isolation from everyday people, they are often blind to the needs of the people who will interact and connect with the spaces. Development through partnerships with the community, on the other hand, can lead to true innovations in public planning that put people's needs and aspirations at the heart of decision making.

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  1. This article first appeared on UBM Future Cities