Participation or Real Ownership?

Our colleague Ruth is researching the ‘Omgevingswet’, a new set of Dutch laws to manage the designing of the physical environment. Does this new system help the commons? On our blog, she keeps us posted of her work.

A little while back I shared on this blog that I was researching the possibilities of the new Dutch Environmental Act for the commons and vice versa. Although this law will officially only start in January 2021, municipalities have been invited to experiment with the tools and practices the new act has to offer.

An assembly, under the title of ‘festival’, has been organized where governmental organizations and municipalities had the opportunity to share and present their experiences. The aim of this event was to inform discussions and inspire civil servants and explore possibilities for citizen initiatives.

I visited this ‘Praktijkfestival Omgevingswet’ (or “the experience festival of the new Environmental Act”) last Monday. This festival provided me with insights that might prove useful in my quest to explore the relationship between commons and the new Environmental Act.

What can I say about the possibilities for commons in this new act, based on this assembly? Two things became clear to me about the promotion and the practices of the new Environmental Act (NEA from here on). Firstly, it was remarkable to observe the amount of energy that has been put in the promotion of the NEA through printed word. At the festival there was an abundance of posters, flyers and factsheets. These depicted infographics, bullet points, figures of policy cycles and so on. These texts, corresponding to the digital platform for the NEA, should lead the transition from the old system into the new one.

It is hard to grasp the message in one sentence, but the idea is to turn the organization of planning the physical environment around. In the old (current) system, planning and organizing the physical environment is determined beforehand by the authorities. This makes it hard for emerging initiatives to realize their efforts. In the new system, planning and organizing the physical environment is supposed to be shaped by these initiatives. In other words, the idea is working towards a system that is better capable of dealing with movements from the bottom up.

This aim is reflected in the smart choices of words in the various texts and documents. The NEA has been initiated by the Ministry of the Interior (BZK) and the Association of Dutch Municipalities (VNG). It should be noted that the language used for the promotion of the plans and ideas is -however positive the message- top down organized. How the guidelines of the Environmental Act are put into practice and how they are realized by local governments is crucial for its ‘success’.

The first results emerging from the practical experiments from different municipalities gave a rather static impression. One of the presentations, for example, discussed the outcomes of a co-creation project with the neighbourhood. Although the main point of presenting this project was to illustrate experiences with citizen participation in general, it gives us some initial ideas about how this would apply to commons. Commons, after all,  exist by virtue of participation.

The project concerned a natural area located between two villages. The construction of a new road inspired the municipality for the idea to reinterpret the area surrounding the road. The aim of the municipality was to have citizens living in the neighbouring villages to co-create the designated area. The main aspect that made me uncomfortable about this specific experiment was how different aspects of this process seemed like the ‘ticking of boxes’.

>> Include citizens in the planning process? >> Check!

>> Invite citizens who live in the area to co-create? >> Check!

>> Leave space for citizen’s initiatives? >> Check!

But including the citizens meant not to ask them whether they wanted the road to begin with, but only what the design should be. And they were invited to ‘co-create’, but those present did not represent the demographics of the town. The whole process was built on fixed frames in which the people were allowed to think. Instead of trust, the process was based on control. There is a difference between urging people to ‘participate’ in the city’s projects, and the city responding to their projects.

Furthermore, I observed an internal contradiction in this case. On the one hand the civil servants expressed their enthusiasm about the results, and the way this project gave them and the concerned citizens and stakeholders energy. On the other hand, the said they wouldn’t actually do these kinds of processes because in reality it would take too much time and energy.

So what might commons, or a commons approach, contribute to the new Environmental Act? Thinking from a commons approach means a different way of looking at the world and what ownership could look like. The above mentioned observation that municipalities might perceive the experimental phase as a moment to set up a ‘project’, differs from the idea that this experimental phase is a moment to re-think the way the physical environment is managed in the long term.

This situation is possibly created by how the texts and guidance stresses terms such as ‘efficiency’, ‘faster’, ‘initiative’, ‘plan’, ‘programme’ and so forth. This obscures the long term aim of generating a cultural change. This is complicated by the necessity of a cultural change in regard to the present way of thinking about government managed physical environment. Without such a change, the risk exists that civil servants indeed will only ‘do projects’ because this is instructed to them by their municipality’s specific NEA. This, in turn, might be a disadvantage for the possibilities, and sustainability of commons initiatives.

Next time, I will report on the interviews I’ve had with experts on this new system, including from the government.