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PPPs, or widespread participation problems

08 of December '23

The need for participation

As part of the discussion about our space, in the press and social media, the question "who put it up?" is often asked, and the culprits are sought among architects, developers or officials.

A more insightful question is "who put it in this place?". It may suggest a perception of some spatial context, or actually a lack thereof, or a sense of negative relationship with the surrounding space. Placing personal responsibility indicates a failure to understand that the creation of a particular object is the result of complicated and complex decisions and procedures, but these somewhat naive opinions testify to the public's growing interest in the shape and quality of the surrounding space. The public is becoming increasingly aware that the processes in our cities are out of control and that treating residents as the subject addressees of the actions and decisions of local authorities and investors is contrary to the aspirations of co-determination in shaping harmonious space.

"Sustainable development," "revitalization," "blue-green infrastructure," "prevention of climate catastrophe," as well as the equally eagerly abused notion of participation have become circulated and abused terms. It is no coincidence that catchy and easy slogans are sought in the face of the highly unsatisfactory state of the quality of our domestic space and the largely ineffective state of the laws and other legal acts regulating this area. The improvement of this negative state of the law was sought to be changed in the new, or amended, Law on Planning and Spatial Development passed in July of this year, with consequences that are difficult to predict today. It is puzzling that this fundamental law largely changing the existing procedures of spatial policy has met with a poor reception from our environment, in contrast to the amendment of the Construction Law deregulating the design of single-family houses. Have we, as an environment, lost faith in the possibility of systemic improvement of the quality of our space?

The clerical optics of participation

Of serious concern to local government officials as well as urban planners, the new, or amended, Law on Planning and Spatial Development, passed this year, in Chapter 1a, for the first time introduces, as an important novelty, mandatory public participation procedures. Referring to Wikipedia, participation (from the Latin particeps) means taking part, participating, that is, the participation of individuals in a larger group, formation, project or institution. Contrary to this definition, the concept is understood in our country only as a certain form of public consultation, not participation in planning processes. What, then, was and is to be the nature of this indigenous participation of ours?

The need for public consultation is not, contrary to appearances, a new element of planning procedures. In the previous state of the law, there were requirements to display a draft planning document for public inspection and to organize public consultations. There was a widespread practice of the almost conspiratorial nature of these consultations, and a completely discouraging widespread rejection en bloc of all comments submitted as unprofessional or (due to alleged conditions) impossible to implement. The reason for this was that, for the most part, municipalities treated MPZPs as an instrument for designating and sanctioning new investment areas, whether residential, commercial, logistics and warehousing, industrial or transportation. In practice, this meant that MPZPs were drawn up de facto in situations where investors were interested in a particular location and legitimizing their intentions. For local authorities, the prospect of quick revenues for budgets is so attractive that it has overshadowed other hard-to-measure values, such as spatial order or responsible development. MSPs have lost their ability to be a stimulator of creative spatial development, and have become a tool for realizing the current intentions and interests of investors. The hermetic nature and specific planning "newspeak" of the language used in MPZPs, often even difficult to understand for professionals, was and still is an effective barrier to the socialization of spatial policy.

Also, the relatively long period for drafting an MPZP (often exceeding a year or more) has effectively discouraged people from following and commenting on planning procedures. This has resulted in an increasing gap between public expectations of raising spatial order and quality of life for residents, preserving and enhancing ecological values and the accumulation of investor profits. While this "planned" spatial policy did not foster the postulated participation, both the vuzetka procedure and, more recently, the lex developer procedures completely eliminate it. Also, civic budgets, which should trigger and activate participation, by their programmatically embarrassingly low amount reduce them to a very small investment scope, as well as low quality, thus undermining their sense as valuable social initiatives.

The mandatory introduction of public participation within the framework of the new law, on the one hand, can be considered a positive change socializing spatial policy, but significant doubts arise. "Cramming" participation into bureaucratic procedures, as even a cursory reading of the law reveals, could paralyze a much-needed change, reducing participation to a sham of bureaucratic action. Doubts are exacerbated by a draft regulation on how to prepare a draft municipal general plan sanctioning the airtight existing language and provisions applicable to planning procedures, along with algorithms for determining absorption and development intensity. How in the creation of such plans the social factor was to be taken into account, not only giving its opinion, but also being a co-creator - is difficult to imagine. It seems that the right idea of participation, has been subordinated in the new law to the ideas and interests of the bureaucratic-official machine.

The social optics of participation

The other side of participation is the social factor, in the current situation apart from urban activists not particularly enthusiastic about this form of co-management of the space in which they live. Participation encounters problems arising from conditions affecting social attitudes. Interest in space naturally begins with one's own apartment and the building environment. Certainly, this interest is not fostered by the situation in which, according to estimates, 40-45 percent of the residents of our cities live in post-communist apartment blocks, which do not generate, or build poorly, a sense of identity and identification with the place where they live. Unfortunately, the current housing development situation continues this bad tradition. The neologism "patodewoloper", which is a conglomeration of the words pathology and devoloper, has become very popular in the media. The terms, even separately, do not have a positive connotation, and developer housing, not to mention patodevelopment, is not an unexpected scourge, but the result of years of processes, subordinated to liberal doctrine. Successive amendments to the regulation on technical conditions to be met by buildings and their location successively reduced the requirements for housing standards such as their area, sunlight, ventilation, minimum dimensions, etc.

One of the amendments adopted under pressure from developers, and especially from banks providing mortgage loans, limited the minimum size of an apartment to 25 square meters. Has anyone considered whether it is possible to accommodate all the functions of an apartment, such as kitchen, bathroom, toilet, laundry, living room, bedroom and closets, in such a tight space? How to live in such a claustrophobic space, and what are the social costs? It turns out that it was possible to push the limit even further by reducing the size of apartments to 17-18 square meters and offering them as commercial premises. How are young people, deprived of the opportunity to create their private apartment space, supposed to engage with the city's external space? If the question of imagining the space of one's future apartment, its climate, design and arrangement is replaced by a question of creditworthiness, where is there room for any participation? This situation carries over to the immediate space of overcrowded, greenery-free and concreted with parking lots realized housing complexes. The condition for participation is freedom of choice and the feeling of having such freedom. The questions asked at the planning level, whether we agree with the realization of a long-sought investment, and at the individual level, whether we are creditworthy, completely negate the freedom so understood, implying the need for participation.

The optics of participation of the architectural community

We architects of the older generation received a message from our masters about the subservient role of architects to society, which we necessarily passed on to the younger generations. This role, however, did not have a partnership character. This message, perhaps not in the form of expressis verbis, but which pervaded in lectures, exercises and conversations, formulated the position of architects as outstanding professionals in a better and broader way, knowing the needs and aspirations of society better than the anonymous public, which was deprived of and lacked this expertise. In addition, society was treated as a homogeneous human collective, which probably had its genesis in modernist visions and concepts derived from leftist ideas that, contrary to their declarations, viewed society in such an object-oriented manner. Such a paternalistic image of the relationship between architects and society still functions to some extent in our environment. This technocratic vision of the omnipotent role of architects has proved to be very persistent and continues to this day, despite the significant changes taking place in society. It should also be noted with embarrassment that part of our environment has rejected these "teachings" and has mistakenly believed that all right in matters of architecture is held by a narrow, peculiar social group represented by developers, which is also a view that balances on the verge of caricature. With more and more widespread education, increasing public awareness in a democratic system, and building - admittedly with difficulty - a civil society, our role should change from the arbitrary role of creators fulfilling hypothetical social needs according to our imaginations to the process of shaping space together with society seen as a collection of individual people with their own dreams and aspirations.

Central to this is the much-abused, as well as often misused, recent concept of empathy. According to Wikipedia, empathy (Gr. empátheia "suffering") is the ability to feel the mental states of others, the ability to adopt their way of thinking, to see reality from their perspective. In an important way, this should change our perception of our own role from infallible professionals to a partner position in which our knowledge and skills play a servant role in a real, rather than illusory-abstract way. From the position of creators who impose their perceptions of reality, we should become more like coordinators and enforcers who moderate and transform social ideas and dreams into urban and architectural reality in a professional manner.

However, we should also remember that participation is not an end in itself, but one of the tools for the creation of friendly space. Regardless of the socialization of planning and design procedures, greater or lesser participation, the result of these activities will be a built-up or urbanized space, which in the current conditions is subordinated to economic considerations and the unfettered flow of capital. The socialization of the planning of our space, despite the indicated difficulties and barriers both mental and formal, can and should be to some extent a remedy for these negative processes. Especially since the currently prioritized profit and capital will dissolve somewhere in the future, and future generations living in the space we left behind will ask why and what was the purpose of sacrificing the quality of life and our space to liberal or populist doctrine.

Piotr Średniawa

Chairman of the Council of the Silesian Chamber of Architects,
Member of the WKUA and MKUA in Katowice, since 2003 he has been running the Office of Studies and Projects in Gliwice with Barbara Średniawa

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