Self-Organization in Urban Planning

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See: Digital Platform for Self-Organisation in Urban Planning


By Herman Mitish:

"The continuum of general planning theoretical debate, starting after the Second World War and until nowadays, consist of four general paradigms closely related to democratic theories: comprehensive-rationalistic, incrementalist, consensus-oriented communicative and conflictoriented agonistic. All of them in different ratio are present in the current urban planning practice worldwide and also identified as being relevant in the Finnish context (Bäcklund & Mäntysalo, 2010). In the beginning of the new century, Theory of Communicative Action, has played particularly big role reflecting and shaping a big turn in the course of modern democracies and planning systems - in instance it has been identified that the adoption of Finnish legislation for public involvement in the planning process in many ways was related to it (Puustinen, 2006, p. 193; Saad-Sulonen, 2012, p. 5). However, consensus based decision-making process was never fully realized on a big scale due to the idealistic nature of its underlying concept of universal human rationality. In practice it showed itself to be infeasible in the complex fragmented world of pluralistic realities, with relatively low transparency and communication capacity. Conflict-oriented agonistic paradigm consequently emerged to describe more realistic understanding of existing at a time communicative processes, and acknowledges existence of competition or conflict. Its main idea is that innovation does not require full agreement.

In the middle of 20th century citizens of the western world notably started the process of liberation from comprehensive systems of governance and control. According to Szebeko & Tan ( 2010), in the 1960s onwards there was a growing demand for greater consideration of community opinions in the decision-making process. Phenomena of participatory planning was related to different socio-political movements, focused on community development and grassroots initiatives, which liberated concepts of public space, streets and city in general, offering them a new role and purpose (e.g. Reclaim The Streets). Here it’s appropriate to mention the birth of the movements such as “grassroots placemaking” and “tactical urbanism”, as they are still on a rise and are prominent as an example of self-organizing urban planning. It was a time denoted by the works of epochal authors such as Jane Jacobs, William H. Whyte and Jan Gehl, who offered their groundbreaking vision on how to perceive and design cities, and why people, not shopping centers and cars, play the most important role in them. Participatory planning has had a long history of development and according to Saad-sulonen (2014), along its history it went through four stages, each with different level of citizen involvement and organizational structure: starting from non-participation, consultative staged participation, collaborative staged participation and currently emerging type of self-organizing participation. If we think about it from more general point of view then we see that self-organizing participation is a point of transition or paradigm shift and it encompasses not even the new methods of participation, but the change of roles and of power relations between state and civil society. Such a shift does reveal many issues with existing practices of participation and with understanding of urban planning as of inherent component of expert-driven culture. Boonstra (2015, p. 67) wrote that current take on urban planning “does not help to overcome the distance between professional planners and civic initiatives, or the contrast between disciplinary and inclusionary tendencies in planning on one hand, and the complexity and diversity of civil society on the other”. New model must recognize civil society at least as, if not more then, equal actor operating on the same level together with authorities and governmental body in the process of decision-making. To elaborate on Saad-Sulonen & Horelli, 2010, and Saad-sulonen (2014, p. 45), acknowledgment of self-organization as of a type of participatory urban planning probably would not help us to step far beyond online questionnaires and polls with development of e-planning tools. Still the situation is often so, that planning process is dominated by established governmental and municipal institutions and urban planning experts, who are not interested in competition, and civil society can seldom represent its own interests as an equal actor. The problem with multitudinous and indefinite party such as civil society is that it is usually being organized only on a very basic level and don’t have a proper means of self-representation. There are many reasons for it, but, in my opinion, it is mostly because of the natural limitations of conventional methods of communication within big enough groups of people.

To overcome this situation, first of all we would need such a communication interfaces, that allow civil society to be equally organized and coherent power to urban planner and municipality, even without being one legal body – and that would be the first step towards the change of roles. Big emergent civic groups should be capable to stand their position and comprehend their own capacities - and this is when we ask what are the means of management and technologies that would help us to connect with each other, collectively organize and make decisions together. And recognizing communicative and organizing potential of everyday technology such as social networks, wikis, etc. can be a good starting point in our exploration." (


* Article: Do it ourselves: Digital platform for self-organisation in urban planning - research through design. By Herman Mitish.