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What ‘socially-engaged’ planning research looks like

11 July 2016 Author: Dr Michael Harris

RTPI hosted a roundtable at the World Planning School Congress in Rio de Janeiro last week on the theme of ‘the links between theory and practice: Is research helping us to address global urban challenges?’

What I took away from the discussion was that academic research can and does matter, but that social engagement requires very different approaches and skills among researchers.

You could think of the World Planning School Congress as the World Cup or Olympics of planning research, albeit without the competitive element (mostly). Of course, a much much bigger spotlight will be on Rio in three weeks’ time with the start of the Olympic (and later Paralympic) Games.

My personal impression from being in the city for a week during the run-up is that, aside from the odd corporate promotional tent and the T-shirt sellers with their (presumably unofficial) merchandise, it doesn’t quite feel ready to welcome the world. Rather it feels wary, weary (Rio having hosted a number of sporting ‘mega events’ over the past few years), and somewhat war-torn (politically, and in some communities, sadly more literally).

Understandably, quite a few of sessions considered the legacy of sporting ‘mega events’. Rio has (with other Brazilian cities) previously hosted the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup and the 2014 FIFA World Cup, among other events. Many presentations reached similar conclusions: the legacies from these events have not just been disappointing, often they’ve been fundamentally deceptive.

The expense and disruption of hosting these events has been justified by the promises of significant public and private investment in public transport and housing - social legacies that have largely not materialised – hence the doubts and frustrations of many Cariocas (residents of Rio).

Forced evictions of poor residents have made way for privately-owned luxury developments in prime locations. Vital new infrastructure (for example, a tram system) has been delayed or cancelled in favour of visible but ineffectual vanity projects (say, a tourist cable car). As one presenter put it, Rio and Brazil’s experience of mega event-related development is that the public sector takes the risk, the public the damage, and the private sector the profits. But (as another presenter commented) this also suggests that the state, and planning, can be highly efficient and influential – when powerful private and political interests want something from them.

Of course, cities' experience of sporting events differs greatly. One aspect worth highlighting, in addition to the typical focus on infrastructure and social (regeneration) legacy, are the partnerships between various actors (local and regional government, development agencies etc) that can be formed through the bidding process (even for unsuccessful bids) and preparation for events. The Manchester Commonwealth Games in 2002, the London 2012 Olympics, and Lille's bid for the 2004 Olympic Games are cases in point.

As independent voices, academic researchers can play an important role in identifying the social and political realities of these developments, but to what effect? The RTPI roundtable considered the barriers that researchers can experience in trying to ensure that their work has a wider impact, and how these might be overcome.

I briefly presented a discussion paper on the need for more ‘engaged scholarship’, building on the similar sessions we’ve organised at the AESOP European planning research conference and a range of contributions to Planning Theory and Practice journal. One of the main points I made is that the subjects chosen for research, and the way research is structured (for example, small-scale piecemeal case studies versus cross-national comparative work), are critical.

Analyses of the legacies of sporting mega events are timely, practical and relevant pieces of work (indeed, some of this work has been carried out with, and been part of, local activists’ campaigns, and has received significant media coverage). Other planning research seems much more theoretical and marginal to the major economic, social and environment challenges we face, lacking in the kinds of conclusions or implications for policy and practice that might make the case for more progressive, equitable and sustainable forms of development.

The discussants in the RTPI session – Professors Rachelle Alterman (Technion, Israel Institute of Technology), Vanessa Watson (University of Cape Town), Ela Sutcliffe (Middle East Technical University, Ankara), and Edward Blakely (University of Sydney) – talked about how they seek to navigate around, or in some cases just ignore, the barriers to social engagement in their own work. Read the brief write-up for more on the discussion, but key points included avoiding ‘preaching’ at policymakers but rather exploiting opportunities to promote better planning policy and practice, understanding the importance of how plans and developments are actually implemented (including finance and development economics), and the importance of being a public and media intellectual.

In short, academic ‘critical distance’ can too easily mean that research becomes (largely ignored) criticism from a distance, whereas what researchers need are much stronger skills to shape public understanding and to work with policymakers directly. Younger researchers need training to be engaged scholars, but the general sense is that they aren’t being encouraged and supported (or even expected) to work in these types of ways.

Talking of engaged scholarship, halfway through the conference some of us went to the Maré favela and visited the Favela Observatory (Observatório de Favelas). Maré is a sprawling informal settlement of 140,000 people – and isn’t even the largest in the city. The Observatory is located in the favela and acts both an academic and social enterprise, involving university researchers but mainly staffed by and supporting local residents to investigate and improve their own community.

Observatory Sign

Working with residents, the Observatory produced the first detailed map of the favela, which has subsequently been incorporated into the city’s official map. This is critical, since the massive favelas are both obviously highly visible but at the same time often treated as if they are invisible, politically and economically. The Observatory has also developed new methods of bottom-up participatory research, on subjects such as education, community safety, representation and citizenship, which both benefits residents but could also inform better public policy.

Aerial Photo Of Mare Favela

Aerial view of the Maré favela

Most importantly, the philosophy behind the Observatory is that these communities – commonly characterised as places of crime and disorder (and certainly residents are subject to corrosive violence, caught as they are between drug gangs and the police) – are by necessity actually places of great resilience, creativity, dynamism and self-determination.

Favela Model 2

Favela model

The obvious question that struck me is that if such vital, meaningful and impactful social research can be undertaken in conditions as tough as these – work that directly changes lives – can we as researchers in the Global North really complain too much about the barriers to social engagement experienced in our typically much more hospitable contexts?

Dr Michael Harris

Dr Michael Harris

Deputy Head of Policy and Research, RTPI