Roles and Motivations of Planning Professionals Who Promote Public Participation in Urban Planning Practice: Two Case Studies from Beijing, China

By Lin Zhang (Utrecht University), Pieter Hooimeijer (Utrecht University), Yanliu Lin (Utrecht University), and Stan Geertman (Utrecht University)

Public participation in urban planning is a contested issue in China. Despite the official rhetoric of a harmonious society and changes in the legal framework that formalize the involvement of citizens in planning processes, many hold that the current practice is highly symbolic and aimed at placating the population rather than at empowering it. External forcing of the current system by environmental threats, social change and technological innovation may be more pertinent than the desire to change the system from within. However, this might overlook the role of the professionals. We expect our study to contribute to the international debates on the management of urban affairs in general and on public participation in urban planning in particular by exploring these in an authoritarian context.

Our paper builds a conceptual framework by drawing on “Western” theories about the roles and motivations of planning professionals. The two contrasting cases happened in the same district in Beijing. In the first case, the local government engaged planning professionals to set up a participatory process to preserve a historic neighborhood and in the second case, third-party professionals developed a counter-initiative to prevent a historic neighborhood from being demolished. The results contribute to our understanding in a number of ways.

The first is that the third-party planning professionals served as advocates and mediators in a government-led participatory process, and as advocates and ‘activists’ in a citizen-led participatory process, yet remained within the main-stream planning structure. The practice clearly differs from the assumptions of Western planning theorists. The first difference was that Tayebi (2013) assumed that planning activists focus on marginalized citizens’ right to the city but planning activists in our case had this as a secondary objective. The second difference was that planning professionals in China played the role of advocates within the mainstream planning structure, rather than acting counter-hegemonic. The third difference was that it was not easy for planning professionals in China to independently play the roles of facilitators, moderators, and mediators. We found that residents are more likely to cooperate with residential committees than with third-party professionals, either because residents are more familiar with the committees or because these committees can provide more benefits to them. The results of two empirical studies confirm that Chinese urban planning education still concentrates on physical planning (Zhang 2002). To better perform new roles, planning professionals need knowledge about how to facilitate a participatory process, how to moderate a debate, how to mediate a conflict, how to conduct a meeting, and how to cooperate with local governments and residential committees.  In contrast to both the Global North where more agonistic approaches question inclusive planning and the Global South where insurgent planning finds space to maneuver, Chinese urban planning seems to proceed by taking small steps within narrow margins when it comes to citizen engagement.

The second is that interviewees were open in communicating their motivations and indicated a mix of motives, from rational and normative to affective. This essentially Freudian triad was recognized as pertinent in the Chinese context as well. The government approved the outcomes in the first case and was informed about the identity of its opponents in the second. The government-led participatory case shows that promoting the plan implementation was one motivation of planning professionals.

The third is that the responsibility for the preservation of cultural heritage was the main driver to volunteer in the process in each case. The choice of our cases, both with heritage as the dominant planning arena, is clearly a part of this, but it is striking that normative-centered motivations were most often mentioned. This kind of motivation is developed by the interviewees’ education and experience. Professional learning was a dominant motive in both cases, which again might not be a surprise as all the interviewees volunteered, but one might expect more altruistic behavior in the second case. The affective motives of professionals were more linked to the place than to the inhabitants in both cases, although professionals in the second case seemed to develop more of a bond with the residents in the process.

The fourth is that despite the similarities in motives between the two cases, the planning professionals showed a radically different attitude to the profession. Their participation is clearly the result of self-selection, and the actions taken clearly show their underlying morals. The professionals in the first case clearly opted for collaboration with both local government and local residents, trying to find a balance between conflicting interests in an attempt to further develop planning practices aimed at preserving historical heritage. The professionals in the second case used the arena to challenge the agenda of the government, and the empowerment of local residents was at least partially undertaken to build a power base against the existing practices of clearing areas. Whether a collaborative or a more agonistic approach will be more effective in the context of an authoritarian state such as China remains to be seen.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Lin Zhang has received her doctoral degree from Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Her research interests include urban governance, public participation, urban affairs, and urban regeneration.

Pieter Hooimeijer is a professor at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. His research interests include urban development, household demography, and residential mobility.

Yanliu Lin is an assistant professor at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. She is interested in interdisciplinary and innovative research, using social theories and mixed methods to investigate urban complexity.

Stan Geertman is a professor at Utrecht University, the Netherlands. His research interests include socio-spatial analysis for sustainable urbanization, notably in Chinese and Western contexts.

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