I’ll start with a confession: me and ‘participation’ have a difficult history. It all began in 2013, when the King announced that the Netherlands was a participation society. Two years later, I went to university to study urban planning. Still reeling from a long summer of partying, the first text I studied was all about the participation ladder. Basically, the ladder is a hierarchical account of various types of social participation. I naively thought they had started the year with the most boring text in our degree programme to get it out of the way. Little did I know that the participation ladder would be the mainstay of my entire undergraduate programme.
After battling my way through my Bachelor’s, I was ready to finally focus on what moves me most: beautiful cities and glorious architecture, the older the better. But again I was mistaken. While it has long been a widely discussed topic among planners, participation is now finding its feet in the world of heritage. But if even heritage can move with the times, so can I. The queen in her ivory tower – as I was known among the planning students – is getting to grips with participation at last.
Since September, I have been exploring the Faro Convention, which is all about participation and the citizens’ initiative. The heritage sector is already embracing these developments, sometimes without even realizing it. But even so, many questions remain. I couldn’t help but notice this during my interview with three city officials. Can participation ever be 100% successful? They wanted to know. Is it a bad thing if not everyone participates? As a local authority or city executive, how can you stimulate citizens’ initiatives? Is it problematic to do this using a top-down approach?
What can we learn from urban planning?
For answers, I called a Master’s student in Heritage Studies. Like me, she had done a Bachelor’s degree in Urban Planning, except she had paid attention during the lectures, as I found out during our conversation. The questions currently facing the heritage sector, she explained, have long been answered in the world of planning. Our colleagues in spatial planning began experimenting with neighbourhood participation in the 1990s and the pros and cons are well known. People are happy with their neighbourhood for longer and feel more invested in their surroundings now that the decisions are no longer taken by ivory-tower planners who assume they know what’s good for everyone else. But participation can be a costly and time-consuming process, and occasionally tensions can run high. Not everyone is happy about being confronted with the other person’s opinion. So we still need the planner to step back, look at the issues independently and weigh up the various interests at stake.
Tensions can also run high in the world of heritage. Both in the case of demolishing or redeveloping tangible heritage, and in the case of preserving or changing traditions in intangible heritage. The heritage expert is still needed to step in and act as a referee.
But what about the questions asked by those city officials I interviewed? What did our Master’s student have to say about them? In a word: no, no and no! No, participation projects do not have to be 100% successful. No, not everyone wants or needs to participate. And a top-down approach is by no means a bad thing, even when it comes to citizens’ initiatives. The planners have made their peace with issues like these.
What the student told me, I recognized in my interview with participants in the neighbourhood initiative for De Pas in Winterswijk. De Pas is what the Dutch like to call a ‘cauliflower district’: a linked collection of home zones, popular in the 1970s. In this case, a cauliflower that is well past its ‘best before’ date. Taking stories from the neighbourhood as a source of inspiration, the district’s public spaces will now be given a much-needed upgrade and the original concept brought into step with life in 2021. This citizens’ initiative is receiving encouragement from above, through small-scale activities organized by the municipality. Participation is seen as being of great importance to the success of the plans. But it turns out that some local residents have no desire to participate; in their view it is the municipality’s job to solve the problems. This has led the De Pas project to conclude: participation needs to be achieved in small steps and local residents need time to appreciate the added value.