Neighborhood Planning for Resilient and Livable Cities, Part 2: Can ‘Nested’ Neighborhood Planning Lead to Urban Ecological Democracy?

Jayne Engle, Montreal.  Nik Luka, Montreal.
This is the second blog post in a series on Neighborhood Planning for Resilient and Livable Cities. See here for Part 1. Originally written for The Nature of Cities on March 18, 2015, this is a condensed version by Sarah Bradley.
When we talk about citizen engagement and planning grounded in local communities, the question of the feasibility and value of neighbourhood planning often arises. This blog post centres on that very question: Is neighbourhood planning worth doing? Relatedly, does planning at the neighbourhood scale have the potential to improve community resilience? How can it be inclusive when by its very nature both its terrain and population are defined by physical boundaries?
Based on concerns about exclusionary aspects of working within neighbourhoods, the authors propose that neighborhood planning is worth doing if it can transcend boundaries to result in better outcomes for the city as a whole. This ‘nested’ neighborhood planning has four components: (1) social innovation, (2) community-development practice integrated with theory, often termed ‘praxis’, (3) neighborhoods without borders, and (4) a vision of ecological democracy. This normative framework is meant to outline what ought to be done, based on both academic literature and practical experience with neighbourhood-level activity. This framework is based on multiple modes of integration: across scales, domains, and value systems.
The four elements of ‘nested’ neighbourhood planning:
1. Social innovation
In the context of planning, social innovation generally refers to (i) action: connecting bottom-up planning initiatives to effect changes in governance and (ii) ideas: providing new meanings, so that it can play an active role in debates of politics and social science. A useful text to help us understand the dynamics of social innovation at the neighbourhood scale is a collection edited by Moulaert et al. (2010) titled Can Neighbourhoods Save the City? Community development and social innovation. By reviewing case studies from 10 European cities, the editors find that ‘socially innovative neighbourhood initiatives’ share three objectives:

  • to satisfy human needs which are unmet by the state and markets;
  • to provide access rights which enhance human capabilities and are empowering to people and social processes; and
  • to change social relations and power structures in order to make governance inclusive.

Across these examples, civil-society organisations (CSOs) that work both within and between neighbourhoods act as catalysts of socially innovative neighbourhood initiatives . In other words, they both strengthen neighbourhoods’ capacity to effect change and connect this locally-grounded work to the political realm in which larger decisions are made. This ‘glocal’ perspective may be the key to negotiating solutions across different spatial scales, which itself is a key to building resilient and livable cities.
In our own work, we have found another reason why socially innovative organizations are poised to contribute to resilient and livable cities through neighborhood-based planning: the expectations-motivation differentialThis refers to a dichotomy: it is often in the (rational) interest of City governments to keep the expectations of city residents low, whereas progressive civil-society organizations who carry out urban planning seek to ‘raise the bar’ by inspiring people to have higher expectations for their cities and bring about change at the local scale. When city residents feel empowered to plan for change and understand that ‘a different city is possible’, they are more likely to take part in collective action for social change, thereby contributing to creating a more resilient and livable city.

Photo1_city_mined (1)

City Mine(d) and its urban pop-up projects in Brussels, London, and Barcelona provide an example of ‘glocal’ action, as an international network of individuals and collectives involved with city and local action. (

2. The praxis of community development
The word praxis refers to the practical application of theory or knowledge. In the case of community development, praxis can be defined as thoughtfully designing, continually learning from, and creatively acting on processes of collective engagement associated with neighborhood planning. Related to the above notion of the expectations-motivation differential, engagement processes must be designed to foster continuous social leaning so that both government and citizens are implicated in an ongoing, cyclical practice. We draw on several bodies of literature including collaborative and participatory planning, community development, education and social science, particularly in the idea of ‘phronesis’ or ‘practice-based wisdom’, which informs the collective endeavor of making sense of the world and our own actions in order to transform it. When people are encouraged to use both broader theory and their own knowledge and lived experienced to mobilize their skills and work cooperatively to use community assets in new ways, they can not only act more effectively, but also contribute to theories of collaboration:
Those who engage in collaboration build their capacity and intuition about how to proceed, while at the same time building theory about when and how collaboration can work. (Innes & Booher, 2010, 89)
Thus, they can collectively work to shift balances in relationships of power in order to work toward social justice, empowerment, and liberation.

Playscapes are ‘natural playgrounds’ designed by kids and landscape architects at Groundwork UK. They provide great neighborhood spaces for creative urban explorations. (Groundwork UK Playscape project)

3. Neighbourhoods without borders
Neighbourhood planning has traditionally involved defining boundaries within which to work, using geographic features, human-made elements, or a combination of both. This definition has been used by planners to make neighborhoods ‘legible’ and to provide distinct, easily-recognized character – Clarence Perry’s classic (and infamous) ‘neighbourhood unit’ being an example. However, like any attempt to conceptualize space as disconnected from its surroundings, there are problems with assigning borders to space that is fluid by nature: what happens when we ignore the adjacencies and in-between spaces? Our proposition of ‘neighborhoods without borders’ challenges the conventional wisdom of neighborhood planning in North America and instead we argue that neighborhoods should be defined to encompass not only a range of activities, including housing, businesses, and community services, but also the public spaces of arterial and commercial streets often relegated to the margins. By conceiving of neighbourhoods as nested or overlapping, we can integrate planning for edge or liminal spaces that traverse neighbourhoods without being conceptualized as part of them, such as arterial roads.

The conventional 20th-century ‘superblock’ configuration should give way to a more integrated pattern of neighborhoods without boundaries. (Nik Luka)

We need to better understand how ‘in-between zones’ like arterials interact with more commonly understood parts of a neighbourhood, like dwellings and parks. Given that that the largest share of public space in cities is occupied by streets, and that as urban dwellers our daily movements often centre in these places, there is transformative potential in streets – showcased by recent efforts by cities across the world to activate streets through pop-up business, public art, ciclovías, and other tactical urbanism projects.

Streets in Letchworth Garden City have extra wide sidewalks and shared space for community events. (Jayne Engle)

4. A vision of holistic ecological democracy
Planning for resilient and livable cities must go beyond physical attributes: without mechanisms for the democratic engagement of citizens at the neighborhood scale to create better cities, no combination of good policies and planning will make a difference. For this reason, neighborhood plans should contain a practical utopian vision – with ambitious solutions to practical problems, such as traffic congestion and the lack of affordable housing – for the neighborhood that is rooted in the larger city. This vision is then translated into medium-term policies and programs but also actions that can be taken on a short-term time frame.
A holistic vision for a resilient and livable city is one of integral neighborhoods – neighbourhoods that represent microcosms of the city – within an ecological democracy (urban ecology that is integrated with participatory democracy). This combination of (i) building an understanding of natural processes and social relationships into decision-making about the urban environment and (ii) creating pathways for hands-on involvement in the democratic process enables an adaptive, flexible form of planning that allows for continuous reassessment of assets, values, and needs in a particular community.
“Ecological democracy can change the form that our cities take, creating a new urban ecology. In turn, the form of our cities, from the shape of regional watersheds to a bench at a post office, can help build ecological democracy.” (Hester, 2006, pp?)

Rather than being a traffic sewer, a major street can act as a seam with stacked functions and a mix of activities suitable for the neighborhoods through which it passes. (Nik Luka)

Going back to the matter of scale, how does neighbourhood planning facilitate this ecological democracy? It is in our micro-scale, everyday interactions – with people, places, and processes – that we become implicated in social change. Drawing on the work of Erik Olin Wright, who wrote Envisioning Real Utopias in 2010, we find that generally change starts with small transformations that contribute cumulatively to a shift in the logic and dynamics of larger social systems that transcend place boundaries. In the case of neighbourhood planning, these shifts occur in the space where civil society and the state intersect – where grassroots (bottom-up) and grasstops (top-down) actors have the opportunity to find common understandings and goals (or not!). The way in which this space can facilitate social transformation depends on context. However, establishing this engagement at the neighbourhood level is a starting point from which to co-define and therefore co-design the physical and social spaces that make the overlapping building blocks of cities.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of Neighborhood Planning for Resilient and Livable Cities on The Nature of Cities, in which the authors will explore the success of a Montréal civil-society organization that undertook neighborhood planning and what we can learn from this experience for making better cities around the world.