Participative Planning

Create value by supporting every effort towards collective decision-making



Kanchenjunga Square at Old STNM Hospital
Underconstruction Kanchenjunga Square at Old STNM Hospital premises

By genuinely involving the community in the planning process, one builds a sense of ownership of

“the commons,” the infrastructure and resources which we share as a society (eg. Our public spaces,

our roads, our forests, etc.) which in turn instills a sense of responsibility to own and solve ones

own problems. The more one engages in such a process, the more ones capacity and confidence

grows to tackle complex problems successfully. This is, in my view, true sustainability. Perhaps

even more importantly however , a collaborative effort means listening to each other, which, when

done sincerely, builds trust. This trust is the foundation on which strong and resilient communities

are built and what will enable us to face challenges together.

Participatory planning is an approach that emphasizes inviting and involving the entire community

in the planning process. It prioritizes the integration of technical expertise with the preferences and

knowledge of community members who must live with the plan. Key to this is an ability to create

and implement collective decision making processes that allow all voices to be heard while also

ensuring a transparent decision is finally made.

All over the free world, where democratic culture has taken root, there has been a reaction against

top down decision making processes in favour of a more inclusive approach. In a top-down

planning model, the planners are unfairly burdened with the responsibility of interpreting the will of

the people, of prioritizing the problems faced by a diverse society and are often pilloried for making

the wrong decisions. The participatory planning process shifts this responsibility to the people.

Our past lessons in planning in Sikkim reveal that the main obstacle in implementing public related

projects is the public itself, be it the people residing in and directly affected by particular projects or

the increasing scrutiny of a growing educated mass with access to digital media questioning top-

down planning approaches. This questioning will continue growing as long as we are a democracy

and as long as we continue to prioritize educating our children.

However, a plan that the public feel ownership of because of participative planning efforts, will not

face these same obstacles in its implementation. The people will have been part of a process and

even though not all will get their first choice, all will have been heard. Moreover, strategic decisions

to solve delicate matters, such as those concerning land, can be solicited from the community

members such that they can be made part of the conflict resolutions in the locality. Of course all of

this takes skill and patience to learn a new way of moving forward, together.

While it is true that for some a participative planning approach may appear intimidating, the value

of decisions made collectively is that they are more stable and more difficult to manipulate for

personal gain. It is a robust way to protect our “commons,” so that all of us and our next generation

may benefit from better basic utilities like water and sewage, from more green spaced in urban

areas and even better roads and schools.

The wisdom behind recent public projects and buildings in Gangtok that are in the pipeline [Star

Cinema, project at Hospital Dara, road widening at Gyan Mandir, shopping mall at old West Point,

ropeway public transportation system and many others we are not aware of], raise serious questions

about how our future is being decided. The lack of a sensible master plan for a growing city like

Gangtok, the dearth of meaningful consultation on huge projects that will impact all of us, and the

absence of an intelligent, transparent and inclusive decision making processes are indicators that we

all have much work to do.

The good news is that there is hope. Smart City Gangtok has engaged in a small pilot project in

participatory planning, empowering local young architects to lead a process to solicit views through

a Public Online Consultation (POC) process that will culminate in a low-cost, temporary design

implemented in MG marg with the aim to increase health, safety, and inclusivity. While this project

is insignificant in cost and limited in scope, it offers hope to all of us who believe that it is essential

to our future that young people like these young women (the architects leading the process) be

encouraged and supported to create value for our society and that we will be stronger if we enable

more people in Sikkim to have a voice in decisions that will impact us for generations.

[the writer is a Gangtok-based architect]