Participation and Place-making in Dissonant Times

Edgar Pieterse

This essay is part of the Developing Urban Futures publication, documenting new research on African cities carried out in the build-up to the 17th Urban Age conference in Addis Ababa.

Dissonance is the overwhelming condition of the current era. At a time when formal politics in multiparty democracies seem interminably stuck, over the past few years a supposedly ineffectual United Nations has been able to broker a series of path-breaking development agreements, of which the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the New Urban Agenda adopted in 2016 are the most ambitious. These agreements represent a fundamentally different political landscape within which tough social justice questions can be confronted more easily. It also means that the opportunity for the pursuit of urban justice is unprecedented, even if not always activated. Yet, even a cursory review of dominant political processes and priorities across the OECD and Global South is enough to deflate hope.

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Why is participatory development so damn hard?

There is remarkable convergence of policy thinking and prescription on participatory development in the knowledge fields of urban development. The New Urban Agenda is emblematic of what is currently considered normative when it asserts a vision for cities that:

Are participatory, promote civic engagement, engender a sense of belonging and ownership among all their inhabitants, prioritise safe, inclusive, accessible, green and quality public spaces that are friendly for families, enhance social and intergenerational interactions, cultural expressions and political participation, as appropriate, and foster social cohesion, inclusion and safety in peaceful and pluralistic societies, where the needs of all inhabitants are met, recognising the specific needs of those in vulnerable situations.

According to the New Urban Agenda, there are four drivers that can activate this vision. One, multilevel urban policies that are consistent between the local and national levels. Two, strong urban governance institutions that consistently act in a democratic, accountable and inclusionary manner. Three, an embracing of long-term and integrated territorial planning and design to ensure that the spatial dimensions of urban form – compact and complex – are optimised. Lastly, effective finance policy frameworks to ensure dedicated revenue streams for a new approach to infrastructure investment priorities. Such priorities should be underpinned by a prescriptive spatial (land use) agenda to ensure that the economic, social and environmental benefits of density are realised.

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Edgar, P. (2018). Place-making in Dissonant Times. In R. Burdett, P. Rode, & P. Griffiths, Developing Urban Futures (pp. 12-13). London: LSE Cities.
Edgar Pieterse is the Director of the African Centre for Cities. This is an abridged version of an essay appearing in Shaping Cities in an Urban Age.