Civic Participation in Urban Development Obvious and Necessary

Documentation town history, Wolfsburg
Documentation town history, Wolfsburg | Photo: City Wolfsburg

An increasing number of cities and municipalities in Germany see in civic participation an opportunity for a democratic planning and building culture.

Decision-making in policy and administration typically runs as follows: a task is discussed in enclosed committees, the solution decided upon in the city council and then announced to the public. But what happens then? Not infrequently resistance among the public takes shape. Thereupon, the administration and policy makers for the most part staunchly defend the resolution with all means at their disposal. This costs a lot of time, energy and funds that would have been better invested in the project itself. Following two referenda rejecting urban development plans, Heidelberg as one of the first cities to do so, has put an end to this dilemma. In 2011 they appointed a study group to develop guidelines for more civic participation. More dialogue, more transparency and participation instead of foul tempers and seething resentment were the objectives.

Timely information

Citizen participation, project education centre Wolfsburg Citizen participation, project education centre Wolfsburg | Photo: Ansgar Wilkendorf The guidelines have been city policy since summer 2012. The city issues information early on with a list of project priorities concerning the building permit process, urban land-use planning and development plans. Anyone can initiate citizen participation, including the city administration itself. The goal is to put together a recommendation for the proposals in question with the assistance of that citizen participation. One important premiss in Heidelberg is the development of a participation concept that registers methods, time tables and costs. The local council still decides the matter, but takes the recommendation into account. Heidelberg has now evaluated its participation processes and has further optimised on the basis of open discussions. In a representative survey, over 90 percent of Heidelberg’s citizens regard regular public participation in planning and policy making procedures as a good way to improve the relationship between citizens and policy.

Exclusion through participation?

Project Hellwinkelschool Wolfsburg Project Hellwinkelschool Wolfsburg | Photo: City Wolfsburg 30 additional German cities, from Bonn to Wolfsburg, now involve their citizens in plannig processes. They view their decision in favour of more “round tables” as an opportunity to further develop the city on a community basis. So there is an need for professional guidance of citizens decision-making processes. Starting in November 2015, the University of Stuttgart is offering a master’s degree in Civic Participation (“Bürgerbeteiligung”). But despite all positive development, concerns are also being voiced that participation may exacerbate social inequality and exclusion since participation offers are mainly taken up by those whose interests are already well-represented. A study financed by the Hertie foundation which – however based on the theme of energy turnaround – among other things questions the legitimacy of citizen participations if only a few citizens are both able and willing to actively enter into decision-making processes also leads in a similar direction.

Strengthening identification with the city

Education centre Wolfsburg, Esa Ruskeepää Education centre Wolfsburg, Esa Ruskeepää | Photo: City Wolfsburg In Wolfsburg many people participate in collecting opinions and sentiments. Citizens also shared in the decision to award the first prize in the competition for the new education centre (“Bildungshaus”) to Esa Ruskeepää Architects from Helsinki and landscape architects Fugmann Janotta Landscape Architecture from Berlin. 1,500 opinions were submitted, 850 people took part in evaluating the architects’ designs. This is new in architecture competitions. “BürgermitWirkung” (i.e. effective citizens) is the moniker of the participation concept ratified 2014 by the city that is home to Volkswagen. Its purpose is to strengthen identification with the municipality and improve planning quality through timely dialogue, as knowledge on the part of users about the use and experience of spaces is a useful tool for architects in the design process.

Conceiving building as a joint community effort

Sculptural skating facility Wolfsburg Sculptural skating facility Wolfsburg | Photo: Martin Henze Cost management is also an important argument for a stronger involvement of citizens, since changes subsequent to planning of construction or urban development end up being expensive. To coordinate dialogue with users, the Wolfsburg building department is supported by a technical department when planning an object. For instance, in the construction of a sculptural skating facility, the city’s landscape architects formed a team with the youth division and external technical planners DSGN concepts from Münster. In two workshops open to the public, users along with their ideas and wishes were included in the design process. In order to make participation part of the planning culture, architects like Susanne Hofmann from Berlin is introducing new methodological and communicative approaches. With her agency Baupiloten she has accompanied the modernisation of the Hellwinkel School in Wolfsburg through workshops, spatial experiences and simulation games. With proper preparation, participation is a way of enabling users, administrative staff members, planners and architects to once again conceive building as a joint community effort.