Urban projects, sustainable development and participatory democracy : opportunities and limitations : introduction to the special issue

J. Racine
2009 Geographica Helvetica  
Contemporary geographers generally conceive the range of territories and landscapes as an expression of a dialectical relation between the social and the spatial; the result of human shaping of the environ¬ ment in accordance with a project stemming from a set of values and traditions, as well as cultural, social, and political attitudes. In short, these spaces are seen as products of the ideology in which each society is grounded. Ultimately, geographers see the world as being the expression
more » ... ng the expression of the way societies use their freedom and geography as the study of the conditions that make possible the concrete and collective realiza¬ tion of such freedom, taking historical, natural, social or institutional constraints into consideration. Through its system of direct democracy, referendums and initiatives, Switzerland, for example, appears to offer its citizens a great amount of such freedom. A closer look, however, shows that this system of direct democracy is largely conditioned and even manipu¬ lated by agents that completely elude ordinary citizens, most notably when it comes to transformations that affect the places they live in. « Participatory democ¬ racy » has thus emerged in the last few years as a com¬ plement to « representative democracy » supported by the 1980 Federal Law on Land Management. This thematic issue builds on the two notions of par¬ ticipatory and representative democracy and inter¬ prets them through a critical examination of diverse examples of urban participatory democracy. Refer¬ ring to the example of Switzerland again, Swiss law stipulates that authorities should « ensure that the population can adequately participate in establishing plans » own translation) Loi sur laménagement du territoire LAT, art. 4, al. 2). As Zuppinger 2008: 29), a Lausanne urban planner, rightly points out in an article on the role of participation in the institutional context of land management in Switzerland, this stip¬ ulation could mean many things: « according to juris¬ prudence, participation can mean inform, consult or substantially involve citizens in finding solutions » own translation). Nonetheless, following trends to be seen in urban development in Switzerland, it would appear that the legitimacy of urban governments depends on their ability to define new stakes, a new style of public action and a means of governing through the par¬ ticipation of citizens in urban projects Söderström et al. 2000; Söderström 2007) . The suitability of the participation process as a means of achieving a local consensus in the invention and production of urban development is critically examined herein, particu¬ larly with reference to its ability to link quality of life to social balance under the very general label of urban sustainable development. Besides institutional actors, citizens and professionals, such as geographers, architects, consultants and cultural programmers, sev¬ eral new actors have joined the participatory process. This thematic issue is therefore composed of a series of contributions from a wide range of specialists who bear witness to recent developments. In the commentaries at the end of the issue, a remark¬ able recent publication by Jean-Pierre Gaudin Gaudin 2007) is briefly presented. In his book, Gaudin examines the participation process from the perspective of democracy and sovereignty. In particular, he questions whether participation is a suitable solution to political crises. As a researcher who specializes in public policy analysis, he is able to substantially introduce the concept by recasting its emergence within the context of its origins and by clearly interpreting circumstances of the more recent expansion of multiple and diverse references. These recent references all refer to democratization, or its strengthening, between the space of political) repre¬ sentation and participatory representation, i. e. « rep¬ resentative democracy and participatory democracy » Gaudin 2007: 94). Gaudin also questions the extent to which participa¬ tory democracy and representative democracy can coexist, and even reinforce each other. Can these two democratic modalities be considered at the same level? Is a hybrid form conceivable? Can bridges be built and knowledge be shared between the two? If so, under what conditions, by whom and how? According to what modes and norms, to what aim, at which scale neighborhood, city? What are the risks associated with such participation? Underlying all these ques¬ tions is yet another: is what is being witnessed actual potentiality or mere democratic make-believe. Based on examples from Switzerland, France and other neighboring countries, several states in the USA, like California, and in particular, Brazil, Gaudins book emphasizes that the discussion cannot be conclusive due to the diversity of contexts.
doi:10.5194/gh-64-202-2009 fatcat:5k75jchpbzhahhk47npfjz2qlq