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How planners and architects rule the world


Article by Bart Steman Democracy is dead! Or is it? The start of out thematic period in cooperation with the BuitelHucht of Genius Loci started with a symposium last Tuesday. It was a great success and around 80 students visited this first event. In this article I will give a brief review of the speakers and the topics.

Zef Hemel: Beyond resilience The first speaker of the evening was Zef Hemel, since 2012 Professor on Urban and Regional Planning of the University of Amsterdam (Wibaut Chair). According to him, the geo-political climate looks very much the same as the 1930’s, which does not promise that much for the near future. Especially our ‘Western’ democracies are under pressure. Internet made things very complicated in society, with has led to a form of collective intelligence. Professional knowledge is no longer something that is owned by experts, but by the whole society. According to Hemel, “Planning is at least 80% communication.” This said, stories are the most powerful plans that you can create, with the dreams of the people. Planning in the 20th century has been too technocratic, bureaucratic and instrumental, that it is not democratic at all. To make planning democratic, we have to make it 100% open. However, this will certainly undermined the expert knowledge and status of the ‘professional planner’, so this will be a though challenge.

Hans Smolenaars: ‘Dijk van een idee’ Second speaker of the evening was Hans Smolenaars, landscape architect and urbanist at Arcadis. He introduced how spaces were used in the history to show power of nation states, of symbols and the people. Although this short introduction was promising it became more a promotion talk for Arcadis than a real critical analysis of democracy and his work. A concrete example of one of his projects was ‘Dijk van een idee‘ in Flevoland. This project was based on crowdsourcing and all inhabitants were able to send there ideas that fitted with the plans for the dyke reinforcements. A jury (how democratic?) decided in the end which 8 proposals were the best and people vote for the best three ideas, which are currently developed.

Jelle Behagel: planning & democracy, natural enemies or perfect fit? According to Jelle Behagel, democracy is more than people having a vote. As Assistant Professor of Forest and Nature Conservation Policy at the WUR, he has worked on a lot of projects in which democracy turned out to be misused. He started his lecture with an theoretical overview of the concept ‘democracy’, which was essential to place the first two presentations in a certain perspective. There are in essence two forms of democracy: one that is based on communication, called deliberative democracy, and one that is based on conflict, the agonistic democracy. This said, he showed some project in which public participation was seen as a form of democracy.

However, how democratic is public participation? Is the essence of democracy to inform people about a plan and let them have a say? Democracy and planning are not per se a natural fit. Deliberative democracy is the dominant ideal, but conflict is often the status quo. “Democracy is the Coca Cola of governments around the world.” It is like a brand that has to be promoted. But what are real democracies?

In the end, all three speakers give us enough stuff to think about. Some left the room flabbergasted, because what is the role of an ‘expert’ in a democracy where everyone is its own expert? And what does the promise of Hemel mean that planners and architects only become moderators? The symposium turned out the be a great succes and it leaves everyone with questions about the democracy we are living in. We will certainly address these issues in the upcoming months.

februari 27, 2016





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