Creating the participatory city

Creating the participatory city


calls for development of the people, by the people

One bright shiny day in January hundreds of women from most of the communities in the northwestern Indian city of Kanpur met in an 'illegal' settlement, eager-eyed and full of hope, to celebrate a very special occasion - the official inauguration of eight lavatories.

These small community lavatories may mean nothing to middle class people who take their own facilities in their homes for granted, and may look insignificant indeed to the planners, policy makers and professionals who have learnt to plan and decide things for others. But for these people they represented an achievement in the development of their community previously beyond their conception.

The lavatories were the first built in their community and, perhaps, the first public facility of any kind constructed in the settlement. Built by a women's organization called Mahila Milan, with support from the Municipality and People's Federations from other cities, they resulted from the community's own effort to organize, save money, share ideas, learn from others and gain confidence.

This practical concrete achievement gave the poor of the settlement the belief that they can be key actors for change. It showed that they can make things better, more cheaply and more efficiently, and maintain them better than they thought possible - and that they have the power to develop and lead the impetus to change their lives, their communities and their cities.

It was part of a city-wide process. The first community lavatories in Kanpur were similarly constructed and inaugurated two years before. They gave inspiration to many more communities to start organizing themselves, to start saving and to start planning to build on their own. In the short period since, more than 60 organizations have emerged and developed similar processes and extended them to many other activities. This has brought dynamism and change to the city, spreading from community to community through the people themselves. Each concrete achievement can be easily learned and replicated and the process is gradually broadened and deepened.

Environmental Impacts

Given the right kind of understanding and support from other development actors and concerned authorities, this powerful process could change the living conditions of the poor in any city. Based on the combined strength of the people themselves and spreading from one small activity to others, it can become a gradual learning and strengthening process for people, by people, on a large scale throughout the city. The need is to get all the affected people to be the key actors in their development process, to improve their conditions and develop a city together, sharing decision-making and implementation.

shanty The social and economic situations of countries and cities have changed considerably since HABITAT I, two decades ago. Then, government was the dominant actor in most developing countries: it provided policy and guidelines, and developed and built houses and city facilities. Various kinds of central government organizations were set up to implement a diversity of centrally-planned developments and projects. Experience over the past two decades, however, reveals very limited success.

The settled urban poor live in a situation where there are no options and no assistance. Life is tough. Their settlements are illegal and they face regular evictions. They learn how to survive, how to earn their living, how to deal with evictions, how to organize and how to help each other. Gradually they can also learn how to develop activities together. Some settlements develop with good support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially if these work correctly in accordance with the communities' own strengths. But some community organizations stagnate because of misguided interventions from outside actors who do not understand the communities' real strengths and may want to lead the development for their own cause or ego.

The poor, who face the problems and the pressure, must gradually learn and develop processes to deal with them themselves. Learning how to solve them properly can become a development strength. As a result there have been many considerable and continuous development experiences with numerous projects carried out by people and quality community organizations. Often, mere confrontation has been replaced by much more diverse and sophisticated development processes. Women, it has also been learned, become key development actors in the more mature or advanced community organizations, especially in the saving activities which often develop as their backbone.

Mythical solutions

In the past two decades, the private sector - with its emphasis on competition and efficiency for economic growth - has forged another direction for city development. Some believe that it will be able to solve poor people's housing on a large scale. But this is a myth: in reality, experience has shown very limited success, especially in developing countries.

It is extremely important to support people's organizations and broaden their processes of self-development at community and city levels. They need diverse inputs on a wide scale and extensive experimentation, followed by innovative implementation. It is impractical and outdated simply to expect governments to do things for them or to open small, symbolic spaces for community participation in their top-down (and unworkable) policy and planning implementation processes. There are plenty of successful experiences from which to learn. In particular, community finance and credit activities, information dissemination and training have all proved to have significant potential for more serious, large-scale development.

Flexibility required

Government can no longer function as the sole decision maker as it did 20 years ago. Development has become so complex, and subject to such rapid change, that a more flexible institutional set-up is needed to cope and keep pace. More para-organizations or new kinds of institutions should be created to work in a more participatory manner. We must create more participatory cities. These would include district committees from various existing organizations in finding common solutions. Innovative participatory development mechanisms should be formulated to bring together all affected actors, at different levels, to share in decision-making and development.

The behaviour and working culture of existing development agencies must also change. This goes for United Nations agencies, governments, NGOs and academics alike. If HABITAT II is to have any effect, it should start with the United Nations agencies playing a crucial role in promoting such changes. Centralized, top-down, expensive activities and programmes, planned by the organization, need to be reviewed and changed. There is a great need for techniques that tactfully support the processes for real change, with less expensive activities but broader impacts. No change is possible if those who are supposed to help change others are not changing accordingly themselves.

Somsook Boonyabancha has worked as an architect in the field of Urban Housing in Thailand since 1977. She is now Deputy Managing Director of the Urban Community Development Office in Thailand and Secretary-General of Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Habitat International Coalition, Asia.

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