Headline: Taking the public along for the ride – Participation and the mobility transition

The proposed greening of several parking spaces on Karl-Marx-Allee has stirred controversy.
The proposed greening of several parking spaces on Karl-Marx-Allee has stirred controversy. Shutterstock/Bastian Kienitz

On Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee a handful of parking spaces (173 to be exact) may soon be replaced by a green median. This has generated much public debate, with local politicians trading arguments on why these particular parking spaces are so worthy of protection. It seems that for some, parking spaces are still sacred cows.

One argument that has loomed large in the debate is that replacing the parking spaces would overturn the results of previous public consultations on the development of this site. A little research turned up a development concept from 2016, according to which public consultations showed that “some [citizens] called for more, others for considerably fewer parking spaces.” In its conclusion, the planning agency recommended – without providing any justification – that reducing the number of public parking spaces should not be a priority. During the consultations, one member of the public had called for the greening of the median strip, which they referred to as an "unbearable asphalt runway”. That is all that this document has to say on the subject of parking. Documents relating to earlier consultations held in 2014 fail to paint a clearer picture.

When it comes to the subject of parking, many people – and politicians in particular – suddenly become ardent advocates of public consultation and participation. Apparently, it does not matter what exactly was decided, nor does it matter whether the process meets the standards required for meaningful democratic participation. But participation is not simply a matter of "taking the people with us", as a local branch of DIE LINKE party stated in a press release on the topic. The purpose of participation processes is not to create acceptance, but to develop better solutions.

Researchers evaluate the effectiveness of public consultation and participation processes in terms of ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, and ‘How?’. Who is invited to participate in the process? What is the focus of the process? And how is the process designed?

Let’s consider ‘Who?’ first. It is the organizers that decide who will be invited to join a participation process. In most cases, processes are open to the general public. As a result, most meetings are attended by whoever happens to be willing to sacrifice their free time to sit in a poorly lit, stuffy room with a group of – often irritable – contemporaries. These people should of course be applauded for taking their civic duties so seriously. But in all likelihood they have a clear motive for attending: the fear that they might lose something; or the expectation that they could gain a lot. As a result, more extreme positions tend to be overrepresented at such meetings and participants are frequently less willing to learn from each other or the experts involved. Crucially, this makes finding a compromise all the more difficult. Most participants will come away from the process dissatisfied because their respective extreme has not prevailed. Sometimes a minimal consensus can be found in the group.

While processes of this kind do offer opportunities for participation, there are better ways of engaging the public. Selecting participants at random, for example, will bring a broader and more representative range of voices to the table – an approach that is commonly taken in opinion polling. This lays the ground for more constructive discussions, providing public authorities with new insights and engaging participants in a genuine learning process. Such process must be designed so that all segments of the population feel welcome and are able to have their say. A recent study has shown that open format community participation processes (often referred to as “Town Hall Meetings”) are more likely to attract individuals who are be older, male and longtime residents.

Participation processes relating to public space raise the issue of ownership. In other words: Who’s street is it? Karl-Marx-Allee is one of the most heavily used thoroughfares in Berlin and it is difficult to explain why residents and local businesses should be allowed to discuss its future on their own. So it matters who is there, and who speaks. On one occasion, access to a public meeting to discuss developments on Karl-Marx-Allee had to be restricted when the venue reached its maximum capacity.

Next: What is the focus of the process? It is the politicians who initiate participation processes and determine the focus of discussions. They define the scope of the process and are responsible for ensuring that citizens understand what a community participation process can and cannot achieve. As a rule, participation processes have an advisory role. When the participants go home, the facilitators translate the results into administrative language and summarize them in a report. As a consequence, the outcomes of such processes are always open to interpretation and are frequently the subject of heated debate. It then falls to the politicians to strike a balance between the conflicting interests and make a decision that will serve the common good.

What all this adds up to in the case of Berlin’s Karl-Marx-Allee, is that the decision-makers will have to grapple with not just their own party manifestos but with the recommendations of the participation process, the constraints of the Berlin Mobility Act (passed in 2018, after the public consultations) and the aspirations of the recent Climate Emergency Declaration. As elected representatives it is their responsibility to weigh up all these factors and reach a decision on the matter.

Lastly: How is the participation process designed? Participation processes relating to the redevelopment of public spaces must negotiate complex issues. They touch on different visions of the good life and understandings of participation, community, individuality, security, climate, air quality, noise and much more. They also require non-professionals to grasp and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different infrastructure elements and develop an idea of how people interact with them. And even when it comes to seemingly simple questions, good discussions need time; proper debate more so. In other words: a good outcome cannot be achieved in a single evening. People must be prepared to engage in a complex process and public authorities must be willing to spend some real money. (Politicians take note: unless you plan on blowing your entire budget on participation and robbing citizens of their free time, you’d better choose your questions carefully before you put them to the public!) What we don’t need is a multitude of community participation processes to advise on the future of every single parking space in Berlin. If we are serious about the mobility transition, then it’s time for us to get serious about public participation and focus on the fundamental issues.


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