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Citizens, Complexity and the City – Lessons from citizen participation in urban (transport) planning in Santiago Chile, 1997-2012


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Twentieth century, citizen “revolts” against highway projects have influenced thinking about public transport (Toronto, Vancouver, New York), governance (Portland), and cycling (The Netherlands) to this day. Less is known about how these emerge in developing countries, and what they can tell us about citizens’ role in innovation to achieve more socially just, good and livable cities. Using a complexity-based approach, this dissertation explores lessons from an anti-highway movement in Santiago, Chile (1997), which challenged authoritarian planning paradigms inherited from the Pinochet regime (1973-1990). In 2000, these leaders of diverse communities founded a citizen institution, Living City (Ciudad Viva), which today is a prize-winning, citizen-led planning institution.

Participation is recognized as important to community development, health and urban planning. Nonetheless, a rich literature notes many limitations. Is improving participation just a matter of “getting the process right”? Or does it require re-formulating frameworks to redistribute power, fostering self-generating civil society organizations, and treating democratization as ongoing rather than a “steady state”?

Re-formulating frameworks has far-reaching implications. It requires acting consistently with the premise that the local is central to change in human living systems, and the need to create the civic “infrastructure” conducive to citizen learning and the emergence of multiscalar citizen organizations, able to mobilize ecology of actors for innovation. To effectively address the challenges of climate change, loss of biodiversity, the social determinants of health, the “obesity epidemic” and other issues, the answers lie in city neighbourhoods and human settlements.

If we aspire to good, just and livable cities, uncertain futures require planning for change. This research suggests that we can identify dynamics likely to leverage significant change and activate capacities throughout a system. This requires moving to an inclusive planning paradigm that fully integrates citizen planners.

Download the full thesis here.

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