The term 'community' has now become synonymous with the very quintessence of planning. Nowadays, planners not only work 'for' but 'with' communities, whether through the established institutional modes oflocal democracy or in more direct community advocacy or developmental roles(Campbell, 2005).
Owing its ubiquitous nature to the multiplicity of meanings and their interpretations, the notion of community crosses all ideological divides. On one hand, the defenders of globalization argue that the processes of globalization have resulted into the formation of a global community, increased opportunities and shared understanding (Friedman, 1999). While on the other hand, the critics of globalization argue that the same processes are leading to thedemise of local communities (Goodman and James, 2007).
Though this idea of community crosses all political divides, it is rarely critically analyzed. Characterizing the idea of community, Arvanitakis (2008) says, " Reflecting all the elements of oxygen, it is unseen, cannot be felt unless it disappears and said to be vital for our survival." All pervading, this idea is embraced by both government and non-governmental organizations and programmes, each looks for the 'magic' ingredient that will lead to community building and participatory planning(Arvanitakis, 2008).
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Espousing the democratic values, this twin combination of community and participation in planning is usually associated with the double edge of a sword. As communities across the world are going throughunparalleled demographic and social changes, the growth of diversity and differences have lead to greater complexities inparticipatory planning processes. Furthermore, as participatory planning has undergone stages of institutionalization, it is often reduced to a bureaucratic requirement (Hou & Kinoshita, 2007)(Umemoto & Igarashi, 2009).
While participation is vital for citizens to influence planning decision making, various interests, values, and identities of communities, the limitations of institutional and formalized practices in turn present a barrier for participatory planning to address this growing complexity of the communities. This narrowing scope of participation altogether presents a twofold challenge to the efficiency of participatory planning process in the local communities.
To broaden up thediscussion, the aim of this essayis to re-examine the notion of community itself and the current critiques toward the formalized and institutionalized practices of community participation in planning.First it questions the notion of 'natural' community and exclusion by posing it with the idea of desire and reciprocity. Furthermore, it tries to identifythe role of planner and mechanisms of engagement that can overcome the limitations of formal participation to address various differences within the communities. Above all, this essay will examine the role of informal processes that have enabled planners to navigate the social and political terrains of community differences and overcome institutional barriers and inertness.
Community - something 'natural' or just a reciprocaldesire
According to Jeremy Brent (2004), community is something that is always called upon when social problems are experienced. Quoting Zygmunt Bauman, he describes our craving for community as " a roof under which we shelter in heavy rain, like a fireplace which we warm our hands on a frosty day."
In spite of such a desire for stability and warmth of the community, Brent (2004) argues that the idea is a double-edged sword; it can generate cooperation and affinity, but also can be divisive and create conflict. This dichotomy prompts Brent (2004) to ask, 'what phenomenon is community?' While it does not have a concrete manifestation, its sense of existence has a real impact on people's lives (Arvanitakis, 2008).
To counter this illusory nature of community, people have tried to define communities in different ways. Conventional and orthodox conceptualizations of community revolve around the idea that there exist 'natural communities' based on recognition (Brent, 2004).Through ideas of natural formation, thesedefinitions of communitystrictly rely on concepts of shared identity and recognition arising out of mutual belief thatcreates a stable sense of identity (Taylor, 1994).
Such 'recognitions' usually involves one individual or community judging whether another is worthy of recognition and, therefore, should be accepted or 'included'. This leads to the idea of 'exclusion', whereby the process of recognition establishes an inside for the privileged and an outside for 'others' (Arvanitakis, 2008). That is, a privileged community has the ability to only accept those to whom it can relate to and recognize (Brent, 2004). Since the dominant group judges and reinforces its position, such processes homogenize and smoothen outthe existing differences amongst communities or the region.
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But some argue that the desire to form a community is not based on recognition but through an exchanged 'desire'. Here, the sense of community does not emerge by any 'natural' process but rather through desiring (Arvanitakis, 2008). The individual exists within a community not as a 'self-atomized being' seeking recognition and accumulation of wealth, but rather through a desire to share difference as a fundamental expression of uniqueness (Werhane, 1996). This desire to form a community with the 'other' who is unique or different, rather than those we recognize as 'like us' leads to a different notion of community; a heterogeneous rather than homogeneous community, where an individual is never reduced to a uniform subjectivity. Describing an 'authentic' community, Arvanitakis (2008) says, "it is composed of different individuals who might not understand each other's subjectivity but rather possess reciprocal desires to establish and maintain community."
It is useful to use Diprose's (2003) metaphor of the 'handshake' to understand this desire for community. According to Diprose, the 'hand of friendship' signifies the bond of community as which is extended to the stranger, and some thing is exchanged and shared in this process. This handshake brings together different bodies and it signifies more than just an offer of friendship - the desire to share hope and trust. Following Diprose's idea of reciprocity subsequently, Arvanitakis (2008) says' "the open hand presents my desire to live together in an open, peaceful and authentic community and all I expect in return is the open hand of friendship to be reciprocated. It is a free and open sharing of desire that allows a community to be heard and the sense of betrayal to begin to recede."
Social Capital, Exclusion and Institutionalization
The political scientist Robert Putnam has linked efficient civic engagement with the concept of social capital as a key to democracy. According to Putnam the norms and networks, which are born out of systematic face-to-face associations,allowspeople to act together more effectively to pursue their shared objectives. They engender the trust, reciprocity and capacity for engagement, which are essential to the functioning of modern democracy. Some communities take this argument further, stressing the need for strong ties and moral unity (Taylor, 2000). Some communities that are haunted and preoccupied by the ideas of common origin or power of unity that they refuse to reconcile or even acknowledge others. Often, these strong ties can be particularly exclusive and can exclude people further from the community.
In planning, though community is regarded as a source ofcollective actions, it is criticized particularly for creating exclusionary behaviors and suppressing as seen above(Hou & Kinoshita, 2007). Growth of ethnic and cultural diversity, and various forms of social and cultural differences in a society presents a challenge to the singular and static notion of community and planning practices in general. In this context, the scope and meaning of participation in planning becomes quite narrow and limited. Here planners are also confronted with diverse styles of communication, cultural nuances and the basic conception of issue. Owing to the complexities of issues involved and limitations of resources, knowledge or political-will often leads to 'straight-jacketing' or institutionalization of the process of participation. Usually, the bureaucratic or planner's interest in achieving 'efficiency' in the comprehensive plan results into formalization of participatory process. Again these formalized rules either encourage certain groups or marginalize other in the process of organization. As Hou & Kinoshita (2007)laments," the tension between planning as a rationally organized activity on one hand, and the democratic process on the other has made participation inherently problematic. This has limited its ability to address the challenges of conflicts and pluralism."
Weak ties and Informal Participation
According to Taylor (2000), a growing body of scholarship from diverse disciplines is arguing for footloose and highly adaptable connections thatcan operate across boundaries, and valuing dynamism above stability as the way of the future. Elaborating on the necessity of such series of nested networks "which can receive and interpret information from a diversity of sources,"Taylor (2000) suggests, "creating a wealth of 'weak ties' across different arenas of social life."Scholars like Mark Granovetter have argued that what is needed in today's context are not strong ties, but 'weak ties' among various overlapping communities.In today's society characterized by varied identities, weak ties offer a capacity to move between multiple identities. Drawing on the power analysis as well as on the social capital discourse, large number of scholars sees the solution to exclusion in networking and alliances across boundaries. It might be argued that establishing weak ties is part of the essence of partnerships in planning (Taylor, 2000).
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The art of planning, as Campbell (2005) argues, is about creating structures, which encourage individuals to identify with the collectivity. Given the nature of individuals and communities, this task is erratic and often frustrating, but very important for participation. It isvaluable for planners to devise processes such that people can get to know each other's ways of thinking and communication. This can lead to a wider and more explicit acknowledgement of various differences, and a greater sensitivity and toleration among each other.As an alternative to the formalized participatory practices,Hou & Kinoshita (2007) suggests that informal processes usually offers a wider range of opportunities for engagement, dialogue, and interactions which helps to overcome the institutional barriers and address the community differences. Informal processes such as social events and informal networks of contacts and associations provide the mediums and catalysts for building trust and relationship. Building on the informal processes, Hibbard and Lurie (2000) link the improved quality of participation to the existing social networks, and associated trust and reciprocity.
Informal Participation and the process of Engagement
Echoing Peter Marris's ideas, Hibbard & Lurie (2000) states, " The purpose of planning is to articulate and resolve, to the greatest extent possible, the tensions between the political, economic, and civil functions of a society as its diverse human membership tries to find their place in it and fulfill their needs."Even though participatory planning processes have been assumed to be the most flexible way of responding to those tensions, the capability gap between the formal organizations and other community groups presents a problem for groups to participate equally in a formal process.
As a strategy of engagement, instead of directly taking on the planning project or issues, there has to be outreach and community-building activities (Hou & Kinoshita, 2007). Based on the idea of 'weak ties', these activities can be as simple as informal meetings outside, school children visits to each other's house, celebrations of common festivals, food festivals, holding exhibitions or plays, etc. These activities can serve many purposes.First, they can bring the awareness of relevant issues and potential assets within communities. Second, the open and incremental method will allow different members to interact and construct new understandings and relationships. Third, these activities will allow all the community members to develop organizational capacity. This facilitates the formation and evolution of new organizations, and new objectives can be defined with the involvement of more stakeholders. When there is sufficient momentum, trust, and capacity to carry out definite actions, then the discussion and activity of planning projects can be introduced. Hou & Kinoshita (2007) lists down four different types of activities that can be involved in the process of informal participation:
1. Animated interactions- If the informal activities can bring people out of the formal meeting rooms and protocols of interactions, they will be involved in much wider range of forms of engagement. These activities allow community members to interact in a less debatable and confrontational situation unlike public meetings where interests of the group are at stake.In place of formal negotiation, it brings personal conversation, laughter, and other expressions into the gamut of interactions thatcreates a matured dialogue. Most importantly, these kinds of interactions helpthe community to overcome the obstacles and differences among the different groups and individuals.
2. Building of trust- The positive experiences from the early informal interactions can be quite important tobring different individuals or groups to work together in subsequent set of actions.These canbe organized by tapping the existing networks of trust and reciprocity that have transcended organizational barriers and differences. Community finds easier to work together and engage in dialogues as very few stakes are involved and fewer resources are required in the informal activities.
3. Experiential learning-While building on familiar modes of behaviors, the informal activities can also take the community members outside their comfort-zones to experience other perspectives. Informal activities provide the experiential base for consideration and creation of new meanings for the members through new encounters and interactions. Activities like school children in the exploration tours provide a new experience that bridges the differences resulting into new discoveries and better understandings of each other.
4. Spontaneity-The informal activities nurturesspontaneity, which in turn encourages creativity and openness in the planning process by getting rid of unnecessary hierarchical structure. Community members are open to the ideas and discussion generated on the spur-of-the-moment as well as changing of rules and agendas. This process therefore becomes much more receptive to a broader range of ideas and is supported by a variety of inputs and skills.
Reflections: Communities, Differences, and Informal Participation
The increasing diversity and differences in today's times puts a particular problem for participatory community planning, since they challenge both the notion of 'natural' community and the limited range of institutional participation.In addition, the challenges lie not only in understanding and articulating these differences but also in coming up with creative ways for interaction and negotiation of competing visions, interests, and identities(Hou & Kinoshita, 2007).The tools and mechanisms of engagement and conciliation should not be limited to formal processes. Instead, informal activities that promote networking and various forms of interaction can generate unexpected and important results. They can give necessary clues to navigate the complexterritory of community differences.
However, the informal participation is not an absolute solution to resolve community differences. Rather, they create opportunities for dialogues and interactions among community members despite their differences. Through the processes of animated interactions, building of trust, experiential learning, and spontaneity, the informal activities can help negotiate and bridge community differences. Overcoming the limitations of formal participation, these processes bring into being fresh perceptions, relationships, and collective actions that allow community members to rise above the formal barriers and other differences. (Hou & Kinoshita, 2007).