Within my thesis, I investigated the power of citizens to realize their civic initiatives and therewith improve the quality of their living environment. Therefore, I analyzed the relationships between citizen groups and governmental and non-governmental organizations to find an answer on the question: Who is planning our landscape?
The reason that I started to study landscape architecture and spatial planning was that I wanted to plan and organize the space in which we are living. I was fascinated about this study because it deals with a fundamental aspect of our life, namely our living environment. Due to this fascination, I always have been interested in public participation because thereby each citizen has the change to influence and improve their surrounding environment. In relation to this, it is not surprising that I also got interested in projects that are started and realized by citizens, the so called civic initiatives.
Nothing comes for free, doesn’t it?!
When I started to learn more about civic initiatives and about the focus of the Dutch government to stimulate and support these bottom- up projects, I also got a little bit skeptical. The development of public space is related to high costs, bureaucratic procedures and different stakeholders who all have different ideas about the future design of space. Since I read that citizen groups are supported by governmental and non- governmental organizations (Hurenkamp et al., 2006; van Dam, Salverda, et al. 2014), I was wondering if this support is not related to an influence of other organizations on the plans of the citizens. This was the starting point of my thesis in which I investigated the power of citizens to realize their civic initiatives in accordance to their own plans and visions. Accordingly, I also wanted to know in which way governmental and non- governmental organizations are able to influence civic initiatives on the basis of their support.
I based my research proposal on the theoretical resource-dependency perspective (Peffer & Salancik 2003). This perspective assumes that the power to influence an organization’s action is based on the dependency on necessary resources (Cook, 1977, Kickert et al., 1997). In the following figures, this perspective is explained schematically. In relation to the interaction between a citizen group and a governmental or non-governmental organization, I assumed that these organizations are able to influence a civic initiative because they possess resources that are needed by the citizen group. In my research, resources are defined as financial resources (e.g. subsidies), human resources (e.g.. knowledge or projectmanagers) and material resources (e.g. space) (Taylor, 2000; Ghose & Pettygrove, 2004).
Developing a research proposal is one step, realizing the research is another. In the beginning, I was a little bit afraid that I would not be able to find civic initiatives that were willing to welcome me for interviews. Fortunately, this has not been a problem at all: both chosen civic initiatives wanted to support me with the realization of my thesis. Therefore, I was invited to village meetings and interviews and I was able to participate in one official sounding board meeting. In both cases, I met enthusiastic people who were highly motivated to improve their living environment and wanted to share their experiences. I used a project in Ysselsteyn and one in Lomm as cases for the study.
In the case of Ysselsteyn, a group of citizens had been developing plans and visions for the redevelopment of their central square and a provincial road. From their perspective, their village was not recognizable as a village while driving through and had not been safe for pedestrians and bikers. Based on this assumption, they developed a plan and contacted the municipality and province. Both municipality and province agreed on supporting the citizen group with the realization of their project. Therewith, the project group received financial resources for the realization and both organizations provided project managers. Interestingly, the position of the citizen group during negotiations with the province and the municipality became stronger because they received subsides. These subsides were provided for the stimulation of active citizenship and therewith not directly linked to spatial planning. Because the citizens were keeping this resource, they were able to take decisions within the process towards the realization of their project.
Nonetheless, the province and the municipality were also able to influence the project, even if they did this only on minor aspects. They were able to take decisions because of their responsibility for the public space, their maintenance task and safety regulations. But even if the original plans had been adjusted on minor things, the citizens were able to realize their idea and general plans in accordance to their visions.
The second case was located in Lomm. In this case, a group of citizens was highly motivated to connect their village with the river by realizing leisure possibilities at the river side like walking, swimming, biking and fishing. Fortunately for the citizens of Lomm, the area between their village and the river would be redeveloped anyway. The area is going to be transformed into a flood channel with nature and leisure areas around it. Since the beginning of these plans, the ideas and vision of the citizens have been embedded in the project. What started as a public participation process developed into a civic initiative because the citizens were unsatisfied with the plans that were made for them. They criticized the presented plans on several points and started an own project group to develop alternative plans. With their alternative plan, they went to several organizations for consultation. Based on the perspectives, knowledge and opinions of other organizations the citizen’s plan had to be adjusted in a few points, such as the amount of vegetation in the area.
Even though the citizen group got support of several organizations, the final design of the area has not yet been decided. Unfortunately for the citizens, they did not receive any financial resources which could be used as a power-mechanism to realize the project in accordance with their own plan. In addition to the financial resources for the redevelopment of the area, the future maintenance organization for the area also has an influence on the final design. Even if the citizen group is willing to maintain the area by themselves, the municipality has to decide if the citizen group or the provincial nature organization is allowed to maintain the area. By that, it can be seen that the realization of the civic initiative is dependent on other organizations and their decisions.
And: who is planning our landscape?
As I stated in the beginning, I wanted to find an answer on the question: Who is planning our landscape? During my research, I recognized that “we” are planning our landscape. By that, I mean that professionals and citizens do not plan their environment on their own, but that both are collaborating equally with each other. This seems to be a quick answer for a research of six months, but while interviewing citizens and civil servants I recognized that there is a transition of perspectives going on. Citizens do not expect that the government is regulating something for them anymore and blame the government for unsafe of less lively public spaces, they want to solve these problems on their own. Civil servants on the other side, do not see themselves as the professional with all the necessary knowledge, but they want to collaborate with citizens equally to realize projects. Personally, I am in favor of this perspective of equal collaboration. However, during my research I also recognized that there are still struggles and challenges that needs to be faced and solved to reach an equal collaboration between professionals and citizens.
Supervisors: dr. ir. Jasper de Vries & dr.ir. Martijn Duineveld
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