“Community involvement in the Netherlands is organised with procedures,” an urban developer mentioned at the closing of a session I attended this week.
As a citizen of the Netherlands, I have been and am part of such procedures. They shape our homes and neighbourhoods. Whenever a developer or the local municipality has a plan, they publish it in the local newspaper and online. They may organise an information evening for the people directly involved. Then, when nobody raises their voice, the plan is approved, and the community involvement checkbox checked. Equally, there are procedures for whenever someone complains. It is all very well arranged.
For instance, when the local government announced that a path behind our new home would become a shell path, some neighbours used a procedure to propose a brick path instead. The municipality followed their choice, resulting in a complaint from another group demanding a greener option. We advised the municipality on alternatives, but eventually, they simply called a vote on shells versus bricks, and the bricks won. Community involved?
I believe not. I believe that the formal and strict procedures that ensure ‘community involvement’ no longer work in a modern society.
The procedures pit people against each other, instead of looking for common ground. They ensure the loudest voice has most to say and effectively silence anyone who is not at home in the procedures. Plus, the procedures are easily influenced by people in power.
There is an alternative to procedural community involvement. The Street Art Museum of Amsterdam, for instance, works with hundreds of neighbours for every large artwork they commission in the public space. They go door to door to get feedback and comments on early drafts. In workshops, neighbours have the time to share and understand each other’s position and are invited to influence the final design.
The impact of this approach is considerable. An unassuming neighbourhood is full of unique and site-specific street art by the world’s foremost artists. Each artwork, in turn, is a community effort, reflecting the ideas, hopes, opinions, and values of the neighbours in a way that brings people together.
Community involvement is not a procedure, it is an attitude. The objective of the participation is not to make decisions in a structured, replicable way, but to ensure that everyone who is touched by a decision feels sincerely and genuinely engaged in the decision-making process and represented in the outcomes.
Community involvement is not a forced choice between a shell path and a brick path; it is a conversation that results in a beautiful work of art.