Inviting citizens to a transformation of street space - flexibly dealing with resistance

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Imagine a city where streets are not dominated by cars but by people. Where streets are a place of social gatherings, a place where children play and neighbours meet, a place of interaction, where they are urban hotspots!

How can we get there?

Reaching this reality would mean to largely rethink our transport and mobility system. In many places, cars are the dominating mode of transport, which is leading to air and noise pollution, accelerating climate change and making urban life less healthy. Combatting these issues is also a matter of justice as poorer people are generally more affected by environmental degradation, pollution and the effects of climate change. Additionally, streets right now mainly serve as transport routes, but have lost social functions that they have had too. Giving streets their old functions back also means targetting injustices created by urban intensification and the unjust effects of a weak civil society such as the exclusion of marginalized groups in urban governance.

Now imagine a municipality that has addressed these problems. Who would municipal actors need to work with, who would they have to include? It seems like a complete overhaul of such a deep-rooted problem would necessitate working together with all kinds of local stakeholders be it local businesses, NGOs or academia but especially crucial seems to have local residents on board. Such a city-wide transformation would also have to adapt to local peculiarities. Formalised local working groups that regularly meet and are responsible for designing the process in each neighbourhood could give citizens responsibility and power over their neighbourhood while also including a variety of other actors that want to participate.

For this to work, it is necessary that municipalities safeguard their power to govern their local transport system. Additionally, connecting the process to other local level sustainable development policies and agreements in different sectors can give the project legitimacy and help develop holistic visions for comprehensive change. The better integrated specific solutions are into bigger developments of change, the easier it is to believe in grand opportunities of change and the power of a shared vision! If this happens, sustainable developments may be achievable even with comparatively little extra spending.

As this process hinges upon working together with citizens, it is crucial that citizens feel they are an integral part of it. Still, municipality-led processes might encounter local resistance, potentially because residents do not believe in the effectiveness of the process and its ability to change the current situation or because they fear potential negative consequences. For example, some may question whether public transport can provide enough capacity to cushion the reduction of private car usage or worry that commuting to work would take too long. To address such concerns, it may be important to tackle the substance of such problems, but it could also be important to change the process, especially how participation is organised.

Looking at learning outcomes from past projects in your own city can further help the process in overcoming obstacles. This might mean that experiences from past policies in similar sectors, for example making streets more pedestrian-friendly can prove vital here. It might even be the case that resistance in the past against other municipality-led projects have voiced the same concerns. This might help in finding solutions for overcoming those obstacles as well as encouraging project proponents to not give up if things do not go as originally planned. In the end, this general flexibility in how the project has to develop could lead to improved methods of communication and participation in the future.

Finally, communicating with media about ideas within the project can help pique the interest of other cities and spread knowledge to other urban areas.

Do you want to learn more about this scenario?

Take a look at the detailed description of Dealing flexibly with and learning from resistance in Barcelona that has inspired this scenario.

This scenario fits under the approaches:

  • Energy and Mobility solutions. This approach cluster addresses technological interventions that can support the transition to a low-carbon society.
  • Right to the city. This approach refers to the right to make and remake ourselves and our cities.
  • Nature-based solutions. This approach refers to solutions for urban sustainability that are inspired and supported by nature, which are cost-effective, simultaneously provide environmental, social and economic benefits and help build resilience.

It addresses some drivers of injustice:

  • Uneven and exclusionary urban intensification and regeneration. This driver refers to unequal exposure to harmful and health-impairing pollutants,conditions and urban environments and/or unequal access to safe and healthy environments.
  • Unquestioned Neoliberal growth and austerity urbanism. This driver refers to processes of privatization, commercialization, budget cuts and state withdrawal from various sectors and how they can undermine urban sustainability, guided by an ideology of unfettered economic growth which often aligns with austerity policies.
  • Lack of effective knowledge brokerage and stewardship opportunities This driver refers to the ways in which (access to) useful information and know-how around sustainable urban interventions and their benefits is not shared effectively or equally among disciplines, sectors or social groups, and thus constrain the potential for both sustainability and justice.
  • Limited citizen participation in urban planning This driver refers to the limited involvement and engagement of citizens and citizens’ initiatives in decision-making around the planning, design, implementation and/or evaluation of urban sustainability-oriented interventions.
  • Uneven environmental health and pollution patterns This driver refers to the ways in which new urban developments might force trade-offs between the social and environmental goals of urban sustainability projects. It involves public efforts to improve a neighbourhood’s physical structure and boost its economy by attracting investment, usually in the sectors of real estate and tourism.
  • Weak(ened) civil society This driver refers to the ways in which collective civic groups that share common interests (other than the state, the market, or the family) are either not constituted and impactful enough to influence and benefit from sustainability efforts or are indeed constrained by interventions that carry sustainability objectives.