Once upon a time in the 1960s, the "master plan" was king in urban planning circles. The modernist approach to designing cities at the time saw the urban designer as supreme — utopian plans were designed in an architect's office and imposed upon unsuspecting residents.

But fast-forward to 2017 following a number of high-profile failed modernist projects like St Louis' Pruitt-Igoe and participatory approaches to planning are becoming something of a prerequisite for urban redevelopment in many parts of the world.

Increasingly, planners are being encouraged to involve wider groups of the people who will be using the urban space on a daily basis, to help to "co-produce" the neighborhood. Even in centrally planned China, urban projects like the mixed-use development on Jiaxing Island (complete with urban farm) are experimenting with more "human-centered" approaches to designing urban space.

Welcome to the age of participatory planning.

The promise of participatory planning

According to sociologist Nathan Glazer, modernism failed to "match the complexity of the historic urban fabric" of our cities, whereas participatory planning seeks to better reflect the real needs of those people who form the threads of this fabric. Advocates argue it promotes the social acceptability of urban projects, supports active citizenship and shared responsibility, and can play an important role in keeping the "spirit" of a project alive.

The greatest promise of this approach is its potential for ensuring a more sustainable and inclusive form of urban regeneration — cities made "of the people, by the people and for the people" if you like. It attempts to reverse the flow of decision-making, from top-down to bottom-up. This means those who have to live with the consequences of urban development get their say as it is being planned.

Citizen-based participatory planning, like New Urbanism, envisages a more modest form of planning. One that is "not utopian and does not impose social master plans. Instead, it allows the infinite variety of human talent and ambition to build harmonious and pleasing environments," as Leon Krier, the intellectual godfather of the New Urbanism movement in America, put it.

This means urban designers leaving their drawing boards to get feedback from the future users of their designs. This might be achieved through new instruments, like "neighborhood design ateliers."

İn Baltimore, a new housing plan attempts to "generate change from the inside out" by using Community Land Trusts under a democratic governance structure. The project aims to create "neighborhood uplift" that benefits communities rather than developers.

Speaking truth to power?

But how successfully is it implemented in reality? Will some powerful actors not inevitably overwhelm the process? How realistic is it for a residents association to "speak truth to power" in the face of powerful development and governmental interests?

Urban planners must face the reality that the planning processes take place in a context where neoliberal norms have given private developers an extremely influential role. Amid the rising value of land in the world's greatest cities, the stakes are high in decisions of what gets built and where.

But planners must remain responsible for protecting all groups in the public, including less powerful groups.


In the past, decision-making power over the future of our cities has been concentrated in the hands of a few trusted elites. But given dangerous signals of an era of divided cities, there are calls for a more democratic form of planning in the hope of shaping more inclusive cities.

Many of these experiments are new, and ensuring that the process is truly inclusive will not be easy. But as architect and Krier notes, "humanity lives by trial and error," and participatory planning at least offers the possibility of returning to some of the "common sense" solutions he believes lie at the heart of successful cities.