Democracy and a Better Planning System

drawing of an urban plan, aerial view

“There remains a democratic deficit within planning.” –Five Radical Ideas for a Better Planning System

A group at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning, led by Professor Yvonne Rydin, has proposed five radical ideas for better planning, with two ideas that explicitly address democracy. The five ideas include orienting planning around well being and not just growth, devolving and democratizing planning, and recognizing the value of regulation and land reform.

Idea number two suggests planning powers must be radically devolved with the authors suggesting we need to: recognise the democratic right of cities and regions to shape their future directions; and have regional and urban frameworks for strategic planning matters based on democratic decision-making.

Idea number five centres on democratic decision making for planning. A core concept here is transparency, but also recognition of the skills and time it takes to democratically enagage communities, particularly marginalized ones, in neighborhood and other planning.

Professor Rydin’s group* has produced a short policy briefing as well as a 16-page document explaining the ideas. The document Five Radical Ideas for a Better Planning System emerged from the UCL Bartlett School of Planning in conversation among colleagues and through ongoing discussion and debate. Their collective view is that the planning system is in need of urgent debate, and ultimately, radical change.

* Members of the author group include:
Professor Yvonne Rydin
Dr Yasminah Beebeejaun
Dr Marco Bianconi
Juliana Borowczyk Martins
Dr Ben Clifford
Dr Claire Colomb
Professor Harry Dimitriou
Michael Edwards
Dr Jessica Ferm
Professor Nick Gallent
Dr Robin Hickman
Dr Lucy Natarajan
Dr Tse-Hui Teh
Professor John Tomaney
Dr Catalina Turcu


First ever Environmental Democracy Index

The Access Initiative and the World Resources Institute are launching the first ever Environmental Democracy Index (EDI) on May 20th. EDI is the first index to measure how well countries’ national laws protect environmental democracy rights, namely, the right of the public to:

  1. freely access relevant and timely information,
  2. provide input and scrutiny in decision-making, and
  3. seek justice before an independent and fair legal authority in cases of environmental harm or violation of rights.

The EDI is the first comprehensive index designed specifically to measure procedural rights in an environmental context. EDI uses as an international standard The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Bali Guidelines for the Development of National Legislation on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters. National laws can be assessed against this international standard.

With the credible measurement EDI provides, citizens and governments will be able to identify and understand the extent to which environmental democracy rights are being strengthened or weakened around the world.

By establishing a centralized hub of legal analysis on procedural rights, EDI provides a critical tool to help address global environmental problems such as air and water pollution, extractive industry impacts and biodiversity loss. The results will help establish both best practices and areas for improvement.

The State of Europe’s Environment

crab shell on the sand with seaweed on a beachIn March the European Environment Agency  published its State and Outlook Environment Report (SOER) 2015 (available here). The report highlights innovations in governance needed for long term sustainability. In addition, a section of the SOER website highlights global megatrends affecting the European Environment, one of which is Diversifying Approaches to Governance.

Authors suggest key factors in diversifying governance include the rise of more and powerful non-state stakeholders in the process, intergovernmental collaboration and networks, and increasing technological capabilities that affect citizen expectations.

The SOER finds that one implication of more stakeholders entering the process is that authority disperses to numerous actors with diverse interests across public, nonprofit and private sectors; it is “already producing a profound shortage of coordination in governance.” To the extent non-state actors hold special or specific interests the risk increases that links between different policy areas will be missed.

Another implication is that diverse stakeholders often compete, leading to inefficient use of resources and the numerous actors all proposing and adopting regulations, labels, standards and norms can lead to public confusion. This is one of the challenges of balancing inclusion against efficiency.

A third implication is that the rise of business and civil society involvement can have a democratising effect, but as some non-state actors become increasingly powerful, they can undermine government authority. The authors note, “While changing technologies and rules on access to information mean that government choices are increasingly subject to the scrutiny of empowered and interconnected citizens, a shift to non-state governance may reduce the democratic legitimacy, transparency and accountability of decision-making.” Non-state actors are un-elected and therefore unaccountable publicly, and their dealings are not often transparent, the way public agencies must be.


Our foreign pollution from imported goods

How should we account for the fact that a great deal of environmental damage associated with one’s own country actually occurs overseas? For example, Chinese manufacturers making our shoes, electronics and bicycles emit a lot of carbon on our behalf. Are these emissions on our ‘to do’ list in terms of the task of reducing overall global emissions? If so, how can our policies at home take responsibility for the associated overseas carbon emissions, water pollution, and so forth?

That’s a question taken up by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). They call it the ‘external environmental footprint’ and note that to date, both international trade agreements and environmental agreements have not dealt with the issue adequately.

shelves of goods in a retail shop

Whose emissions are those? Imported goods in a retail shop (author photo).

Sweden’s pioneering  national environmental policy, known as the “Generational Goal”, states that: “The overall goal of Swedish environmental policy is to hand over to the next generation a society in which the major environmental problems in Sweden have been solved, without increasing environmental and health problems outside Sweden’s borders”.

To help the Swedish government develop specific policies to address the last part of this goal–the external environmental footprint–SEI recently produced a policy brief. The brief outlines a three-step analytical framework for policy development, including:

  • Mapping the national consumption profile, including the ratio of imported goods  and the main categories of imported products.
  • Identifing policy instruments by looking at ‘hotspots,’ product categories and regions with highest environmental impacts, and analysing existing policy instruments for relevance to imported goods
  • Classifying and prioritising policy options

Read more in the briefing at:

New online tools


Recently Techpresident has covered a couple of new online tools that might be applicable to people working in democracy and sustainable development.

The first tool is The People’s Lobby, which is a process for structuring citizen participation to make it more meaningful. Founder Jeff Swift commented, “People don’t feel like the government listens, and the government doesn’t feel like the people talk.” With People’s Lobby, a wide group of citizens submit issues of concern, and from among those, a representative cross section are recruited to deliberate and select  issues for further attention, including the development of policy proposals.

One can easily imagine applying this approach through a sustainability lens with interesting results. The People’s Lobby is having its inaugural run in Provo, Utah. (Techpresident article.)

The second tool, called Fiskkit, enables people to publicly challenge false, simplistic or biased news and reporting. Jessica McKenzie writes,

Fiskkit takes its name from the blogging practice, made popular by Andrew Sullivan, called fisking, in which someone refutes an article point by point, sometimes sentence by sentence. Bloggers began using the term in 2001 after Sullivan wrote a rebuttal to an antiwar article by Robert Fisk, a foreign correspondent for The Independent.

Fiskkit ‘democratises’ this approach, making it easy to comment on other  people’s work, line-by-line if desired, to highlight both good and bad handling of the facts and interpretation. Ultimately Fiskkit aims to aggregate, in useful ways, statistics about what’s getting fisked. One can immediately see the relevance to this kind of tool in terms of claims and counter claims about environmental sustainability in particular.

Civility, which has not always been present in fishing, is a central concern of Fiskkit. For example, the site will offer a “respect” button instead of “like.” It will be possible to fisk the fishers and in a self-policing mechanism, you can set you filter to see only “good faith” comments. (Techpresident article.)

A Carbon Tax on Me

Portrait of a businessman

No taxation without representation, right? So one way of guaranteeing a carbon tax is to impose one on yourself. That’s just what David Lawrence did and he tells the story over on The Energy Collective in his article “a Carbon tax on me: one person’s story of a self-imposed carbon tax.”

(image courtesy of iStock)

Board Member News: Graham Smith

Graham SmithFDSD Board Member, Graham Smith, spoke at several events recently. In Paris he contributed to the UNDESA/UNESCO Expert Group Meeting ‘Formal/Informal Institutions for Citizen Engagement for implementing the Post 2015 Development Agenda’ from 20-21 October 2014. 

He also presented a paper at the conference “Understanding Climate Change Policy” at Cumberland Lodge.