Capturing the imagination | Law

Capturing the imagination

OPINION: Amelia Thorpe, The West Australian, 21 May 2014.

There is a well-rehearsed lament regarding public engagement in planning and design.

We hear that people don't participate. We hear that only vested interests and NIMBY obstructionists get involved. We hear that people only object, they don't contribute to the strategic planning processes where visions for the future can be shaped.

Is the problem not the people, but the processes offered to them?

Maybe the lack of enthusiasm for strategic planning shows that people are not disengaged but savvy. Given the number of plans that do little more than gather dust, maybe not expending time and energy on their formulation is a wise decision.

There has been a growing interest in ways to make participation more inclusive and more meaningful. Initiatives such as community advisory panels, deliberative design workshops and citizens' juries are touted as particularly promising examples of public engagement.

But can we go further? Beyond trying to democratise top-down processes, might we identify and build on the existing practices by which people already participate in shaping the places in which they live?

Across WA, groups and individuals have played a very positive role in shaping their cities and towns by constructing playgrounds, community gardens and memorials, by raising funds for public buildings, by arranging markets, street parties and public performances.

Recognising the divergence between the ways in which planners ask people to engage and the ways in which people choose to engage, might it be possible to move beyond strategic planning as the focus for public participation?

Temporary architecture presents an exciting way to re-think planning processes. In contrast to the long and hotly contested debates regarding beachside development at Cottesloe, building at Bathers' Beach was remarkably easy. The reversibility of temporary structures meant works could proceed quite quickly and the physical experience of change meant that many fears could be defused. The pros and cons of development can now be debated in an informed way. Should we keep it? Change it? Move on to something more permanent? Test something else?

Importantly, temporary architecture doesn't require people to read technical plans and policies.

Of course, temporary architecture doesn't automatically result in meaningful participation. Expanding the scope of discussion and the people who engage in it need to be key objectives in the planning and design of temporary projects.

As initiatives like Better Beaufort Street demonstrate, people do want to shape the future of their cities. People like seeing new ideas and they particularly like seeing them made "real".

The challenge is to make planning and design more like this.

Amelia Thorpe is a lecturer at UNSW Law.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian. View a PDF of the story here.