Struggling: discussing the substantive issues at hand
Struggling: discussing the substantive issues at hand
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter looks at the ways in which public professionals and citizens talk about the substantive issues at hand. Discussing substantive issues is a continuous ‘struggling’ with taking on-board unknown knowledge about rules, structures, and policies, and acknowledging the feelings, beliefs, and experiences of others. Struggling is all but a matter of neutral and straightforward knowledge exchange: it is a continuous process of getting recognition to take part in conversations and learning to translate their content in meaningful ways. Merely facilitating public professionals and citizens to discuss substantive issues is not enough to get them to integrate their ‘actionable understandings’; truly ‘unifying differences’ comes down to a subtle activity of recognising, empathising, and appreciating what is being communicated. Public professionals and citizens will not manage to overcome their habitual pattern if they lack the capacity to communicate about their struggling with the beliefs, perceptions, and feelings inherent to their actionable understandings.
‘[S]uch a person needs years before he has recognition … and then from what the residents are saying he is able to translate that in concrete steps in his organisation. And yeah … that’s of course a continuous process.’
(Mohammed – resident, Amsterdam)
After having seen how public professionals and citizens engage with the situation in which they meet, this chapter looks at what they talk about and in what ways. Discussing the substantive issues at hand is a continuous struggling with taking on board unknown knowledge about rules, structures, and policies, and acknowledging the feelings, beliefs and experiences of others. The opening quote from Mohammed (a brisk and assertive young man with a migrant background, a lot of participatory experience and a sceptical attitude towards the authorities) reveals that discussing substantive issues is anything but a neutral and straightforward transmission of information: it is ‘a continuous process’ of getting recognition to take part in conversations and learning to translate their content in meaningful ways. Merely facilitating public professionals and citizens to discuss substantive issues is not enough to get them to integrate their actionable understandings; truly unifying differences comes down to a subtle activity of recognising, empathising and appreciating what is being communicated. Public professionals and citizens will not manage to overcome their habitual pattern of communication if they lack the capacity to communicate about their struggling with the beliefs, perceptions, and feelings inherent to their actionable understandings.
Public professionals and residents in Glasgow are confronted with so many different pieces of information, knowledge and experience that they tend to defend their own expertise by taking a stance rather than recognising the value of others’ expertise. In Amsterdam, public professionals and residents are entangled in a process of getting under the skin (of problems, issues, people, experiences, events, relationships and so on): investing a great amount of time and energy in understanding the particulars of individual local problems, without being able to articulate or extrapolate this know-how to other (p.142) situations. Having clearly established what counts as relevant expertise, public professionals and residents in Bologna are not able to consider local problems beyond the nuts and bolts of urban regeneration projects. As such, each case shows that discussing the substantive issues at hand is limited by a habitual pattern of exchanging actionable understandings rather than recognising the struggling involved in this and the communicative capacity needed to unify differences.
Glasgow: taking a stance
‘[Y]ou can imagine the challenges of breaking down what … Community Planning is and how it brings people together … into something that’s put straightforward out for people to understand and get their heads round and feel comfortable with’
(Gail – Community Planning officer)
Gail, who once again provides a helpful starting point, conveys how the case of the Glasgow Community Planning Partnership (GCPP) is characterised by a desire to integrate different actionable understandings as well as an inability to do so. This discrepancy can be explained with the pattern of taking a stance, which refers to the inclination of public professionals and residents to defend their own expertise in the face of an overwhelming number of viewpoints and pieces of information. The GCPP was founded on the idea that all relevant forms of local expertise need to be taken into account. However, in practice individuals are inclined to hang on to the partial understandings deriving from their professional training, social environment and personal experiences. They often fail to acknowledge that integrating actionable understandings is a matter of struggling. As a result, the GCPP has not turned into the integrative platform it was intended to be. Instead, public professionals and residents tend toward taking a stance by defending their own knowledge and experiences while contesting the value of those of others rather than by unifying differences.
That is not to say that public professionals and residents are not willing to consider different actionable understandings. Each of them expresses a strong commitment to making a difference to local communities and a willingness to collaborate with each other in doing so. Everyone considers collaboration necessary for coming up with better informed solutions to local problems. In the interviews, most of them could provide examples of successful ways in which different bits and pieces of knowledge and experience had been (p.143) integrated. A local police officer, for instance, told me how he had managed to resolve safety problems caused by gangs of youths in one area by collaborating with residents and a number of public agencies on an innovative solution. However, even such seemingly successful collaborations follow a habitual pattern of communication that, in subtle ways, neglects certain actionable understandings. This is not so much the result of deliberate attempts to exclude knowledge and experiences held by particular individuals, but rather from lacking awareness of the struggling underlying their discussions of the substantive issues. Public professionals and residents in Glasgow often fail to display sensitivity to resulting feelings of misunderstanding, exclusion and frustration, driving each other to taking a stance about what they consider legitimate expertise. Therefore, they need to develop communicative capacity to change their limited, habitual ability for collaborating, listening, and trusting each other.
The GCPP policy made an explicit commitment to integrate a wide variety of viewpoints, experiences, and sources of information:
We will work in such a way that it supports the values of openness, parity between partners and achieving progress through consensus… We will develop joint approaches to improving service delivery and the quality of life for the citizens of Glasgow.
Notice that the commitment made to ‘the values of openness, parity … and … consensus’ leaves unspecified how public professionals and residents should go about developing ‘joint approaches’. Stating that they can simply ‘work in such a way’ to accomplish these values reveals the belief that unifying differences is a straightforward process of bringing together all ‘partners’ and ‘the community’ for joint decision making. As Mark, who, as already explained in Chapter Five, is responsible for making this happen, explains:
‘[T]hese [Community Reference] Groups are ideally all things to all people at all times. In terms of representation they are meant to cut across all walks of life, all aspects of society, so that they are representative effectively from cradle to grave, all these groups, all nationalities, you know, ethnic origin, you know, sexual orientation …’
(Mark – Community Planning officer)
(p.144) The goal of being “ideally all things to all people at all times” neglects the practical limitations on discussing substantive issues. Public professionals and residents are expected to keep a ‘feel’ for the nitty-gritty of many local circumstances and individual situations as well as consider problems and solutions at the neighbourhood, area, city, and national level. They need to take statistics, policy goals, time lines, budgets, physical constraints, political dynamics, partner organisation practices, and directly voiced community needs and demands into account about the complex nature of and relationships between safety, health, unemployment, housing, and so on. Of course, each individual can only mentally process a limited amount of information, knowledge and experience and translate this into concrete action. The most acute example of this is Sadiqua (an elderly woman with an immigrant background) who was so overwhelmed by the intense discussion in a Community Reference Group meeting that she sat it out without saying a word. Later she told me that she found the other participating residents “really better than me, because they’ve got more experience, by education as well, more experience”. Being confronted with different bits of knowledge and experiences can definitely enhance awareness of the partiality of individual actionable understandings and the need to integrate these. But in Glasgow it leads public professionals and residents to dig in their heels to defend their own expertise. Why does this happen?
The previous chapter showed that the situation is a complex, ambiguous and changeable work in progress complicating any straightforward exchange of expertise held by different people. This renders communication about problems and solutions a process of struggling to determine which information, experiences and emotions form a legitimate basis for action. Once more we turn to Gail:
‘[W]e don’t have local autonomy over priorities and outcomes. We have our Single Outcome Agreement with the Scottish Government that says that at Glasgow city level we have to deliver these outcomes. So we can’t just come up with these outcomes that we might like at a local level if they bear no relationship to the city strategic goal, if you like, and the national. So we’ve got to find a way of having a local dimension to our decision making, but one that feeds directly into the city objectives … So, it’s complex. And in all of that our Community Reference Groups need to understand what the Single Outcome Agreement is and they need to try and understand (p.145) this process for agreeing priorities at local level. And, um, what we need to do is a more effective engagement with them on that, and that’s the real goal of how do we actually involve them. It’s a complex process we’re not fully in control of, of all the factors. Um, we need to engage them earlier in the process and yet often the time scales don’t allow that. Yeah? … For example, we are looking at our planning for the priorities for next financial year, we have very, very little time to bring the Community Reference Groups up to speed on that, and we have very little time for them to go to talk to their local groups about that. And the risk is that if we don’t ask them to go out and talk to their local groups…, then we don’t get an effective input from them … But if we do do it, we might be criticised for being rushed about it. So, you have these dilemmas, you know, in the context that we’re operating in you have to make a judgement … And then the other dilemma is, you know, strategy needs to be … based on evidence of need. So if the evidence and statistics tells us that … the main health issues are around alcohol, but all our community engagement tells us that local people are more concerned about drugs, you know, what do we then do? Because we’re, you know [laughs frantically], then you’re in a difficulty there, so, you know, it’s quite a challenge to do this kind of effective engagement at that strategic level. It is … [laughs]…’
(Gail – Community Planning officer)
Gail’s narrative illuminates how unifying differences in the face of opposing knowledge claims is complicated by the practical constraints of the situation. Ideally, public professionals and residents come up with smart and creative strategies for meaningfully defining, measuring and acting upon such complicated problems as public health within the existing policy limits. But what is she supposed to do if statistics point in one direction and the personal experiences of residents in another? On the one hand Gail has to respect the boundaries set by the Single Outcome Agreement, but on the other hand she also wants to genuinely engage with residents. The actual prospects for having productive conversations about local problems are quite limited as they are “not fully in control … of all the factors” (such as the time scales). Indeed, as her frantic laughing at the end of the story indicates, (p.146) struggling with substantive issues “is quite a challenge” which they have still “got to find a way” to deal with.
Instead of recognising how this struggling is limiting their ability to communicate productively about local problems, public professionals and residents are taking a stance: having tacit and overt disputes about what type of knowledge, experiences and emotions count as legitimate expertise. The narratives of Mike (a local police officer who patrols the streets and also collects data for strategic decision making as a middle level manager) and Mary (an assertive resident active in a number of community groups who strongly believes in the value of the community) are the most powerful illustrations:
‘[I]t’s looking at, right, how can we pull things together, seeing what areas are we lacking in. And again, that’s where you need an awful lot of the public consultation stuff. We’re looking at the results from the Neighbourhood Management Survey, … [our own] survey, we’re looking at results from what [other agency] have with their surveys, saying ‘[W]e have got an issue in this neighbourhood here … in relation to … antisocial behaviour … What … resources are already in place there, what additional resources can we put in to that? And more importantly, how can we involve the community in that, to try and address it?’ And that’s where a lot of it is trying to get back to … the communities, for them … to become actively engaged in what we’re doing … “It’s maybe been the perception of this what it should be”, or “No, what we’re coming across, you’re giving us information, we assess that information, and this is what we’re giving back.” And that’s where we’re gonna have to try and get that balance, … so that people know that they’re having an input, where their input is going to, and the result of that input, what the outcome is that’s coming from there.’
(Mike – police officer)
‘Workers of Community Planning attend meetings, … but all they’re doing is meeting other workers and a specific kind of resident who is already active. What would be much more interesting if they went out and would actively sought feedback from people who aren’t activists, people who they could approach at bus stops … Maybe it sounds a bit crazy, but, you know, go (p.147) and arrange with a butcher … to allow you to sit in their shop for a morning and talk to the people that are coming in. And you get a snapshot, you know. People like me, everybody knows what we think because we tell it all the time. It is so much more important to go out and seek the opinions of the people who don’t go to meetings, aren’t activists. That’s going to be the challenge, if they actually want … community engagement … Go and stand outside a school at three o’clock and seek the opinions of mommies and daddies picking up their kids, you know. Or go and stand outside a subway station and … speak to people there. I mean, it’s completely random, but I would suggest that you would get a broader view of, you know, what people actually need.’
(Mary – resident)
These stories set out conflicting diagnoses of the needs of ‘the community’ and prescribe different ways of discussing substantive issues. Mike describes it as residents “giving us information” and public professionals who “assess that information” to determine which “resources are already in place” and “what additional resources can we put in”. Within this Planning narrative, participatory encounters help to identify whether a problem is real or perceived, and, if real, to determine where, when, and how to target it. This means that public professionals and residents need to engage in comprehensive knowledge gathering, drawing up plans to adequately allocate resources, and feeding back decisions to “the communities, for them … to become actively engaged in what we’re doing”. Conversely, Mary stresses that public professionals need to become actively engaged in what residents are doing instead of the other way around. In this Community narrative, actionable understandings have to emerge from talking to customers in shops, parents in front of schools, and subway passengers. Although this might be an unconventional, time consuming and “completely random” approach, it will lead to better understandings of what local problems actually are and how they could be solved rather than using official channels for gathering and feeding back knowledge.
These conflicting narratives could certainly complement each other if public professionals and residents recognised the value of both actionable understandings as well as the contradictions in diagnosis and prescription of who needs to engage in whose world. This could lead them to explore the practical possibilities for constructive struggling and unifying differences in their expertise into new shared understandings of how to jointly address the issue at hand (see Chapter (p.148) Two, pp 43-5). But underlying beliefs and feelings are usually left out of the conversation. Collaboration is merely treated as an instrumental exchange of expertise to resolve problems which up to that point they have been unable to do anything about. For example, Bill (a manager at an employment agency) thought that collaborating with other agencies and residents would enable him to help more people into a job. The narrative of Annette (a middle-level manager in a housing agency) about a collaborative project for reducing ‘youth disorder’ is a good illustration of how all their success stories have the same narrative structure.
‘[Y]ou might have heard of the Stuff Bus? Where, um, Glasgow Housing Association, um, TCAS, Community Safety Services, um, … and Culture and Sport Glasgow, several of the Community Planning Partners, got together and we developed a response to, kinda, youth disorder in the South of the city. So a lot of the problems that, you know, the Police were having to deal with, Fire responding to, and us as a landlord paying the price, youths causing mayhem, because they have nothing better to do. So we got together and we did that through Community Planning, and got some Community Planning funding, Fairer Scotland Funding, but all the partners put their hands in their pockets as well. Basically what we got was a minibus trailer and converted it and put into the bus things that would keep kids amused. So basically it visits the local areas, the local hotspots, where there’s plenty of youths, um, and hopefully stops them ripping up the area. Because they can go in, play videogames, we have kind of five a side football arrangements that follow the Stuff Bus. So the kids now generally know when it’s coming to their area and can plan their evening. When they go there, there’s youth support workers that will maybe try and get them into other things, work, education, other things than, you know, drink, drugs, anti social behaviour … So that was very successful as well, and very visible as a Community Planning project. And one we worked closely on, um, one we put money into, we put in resources as well to actually develop the project, write all the bids to get lottery funding, we went to one of the big supermarkets over in the South area, got some money out of them as well … So that was a bit, we genuinely did (p.149) Community Planning. Um, the resident surveys were saying youth disorder was a big issue. So the surveys we were doing at a CPP level said ‘This is an issue for us.’ So, yes, that was one of the ones where you could see there was a community message saying “We need this fixed”, the Community Planning board, together the partners together took that issue and developed a very successful response.’
(Annette – housing manager)
Annette tells us about the way in which “the partners” found a collaborative solution in response to “a community message” about youth disorder. In the first instance, we might tend to agree that the problem was addressed more effectively than before because public professionals and residents shared their knowledge and experience. However, this narrative actually reveals a habitual pattern of communicating about how to discuss substantive issues. The narrative follows a ‘storyline of helplessness and control’ (see Chapter Four) because they “genuinely did Community Planning”, it suddenly became possible to resolve this grave and stubborn problem of youth disorder. This storyline aids Annette in framing the problem as “youths causing mayhem, because they have nothing better to do” and the solution as giving them the opportunity to play games once a week and “stop them ripping up the area” and getting involved in “drink, drugs, antisocial behaviour”. Although such outreach work is a widely accepted method for dealing with youth disorder, we could ask ourselves whether it is really the case that youngsters just “have nothing better to do” or whether their disorderly behaviour is an expression of a life of deprivation, unemployment and gang culture. Is this bus really a structural solution or are results only marginal, temporal and local? Is the perception of success shared by all public professionals and residents or have certain voices been excluded? How have residents been involved in decision making, implementation and evaluation? And how does this collaborative approach relate to other local problems?
All these questions are not meant to discredit Annette’s positive experience, but rather to emphasise that each public professional and resident is unconsciously taking a stance based on beliefs, values and experiences which tend to be ignored and kept out of the conversation. The conversations of public professionals and residents in Glasgow have the tendency to take different actionable understandings for granted and link them instrumentally while discussing substantive issues. Instead of pragmatically exploring how different actionable understandings could supplement each other and be integrated, (p.150) this sustains a habitual pattern of taking a stance in which public professionals and residents implicitly and explicitly contest the value of each other’s expertise. Consider the stories of Kelly and George, two active and aggrieved senior residents involved in the CRG and community groups in their areas:
‘I do go in blind down and I do fight and I have several fights over the issue that the [Community Health] Forums are shut down. They were doing what they were set up to do, differently in other areas … but if at the end of the day if it’s local people run you’ve got what local people are looking for. If you as a funder want to come in and actually do more, you have to give them an idea of what you want them to be. You can’t come in with this approach … “We’ll set up our own structures”, which Community Planning has been doing … I live in one of the worst areas for health … and our health initiatives have been pared back to the bone. Our local health projects that drew a lot, smoking cessation groups, you know, weight loss things, you know, confidence boosting to get you out of depression therapies, you know, alternative therapies for residents … The only way to really fix Glasgow is by using the communities. And to get some kind of health employer coming in and saying “We should be doing that,”… Glasgow folk turn away and say “On yer way.” … People will come into a health club … locally … That’s where a big Glasgow strategy should be feeding into … They should be saying “What is it that you’re doing that got the results and how can we help you get more results?”’
(Kelly – resident)
‘[W]e’ve had various meetings … over the past two years … about various issues, which we’ve been trying to raise, that were impaired, um, by the involvement … of superior powers, … by the guidelines they bring down. And they don’t give us the freedom, actually, of expressing or motivating these actions which we would like to be involved in. And get them to give us that service and provide it with that information and any projects, actually, which could be developed for the benefit of the community and the area should be looked at more seriously. And open discussions and dialogue on it.’
(George – resident)
(p.151) Both Kelly and George fervently express their frustration at the dismissive way in which their knowledge and experience is treated. As active residents, they have a long history of living in and working with their communities. Their discussions of substantive issues are determined by them taking a stance against the “superior powers” and the decisions and “guidelines they bring down”. This antagonistic pattern of communication is supported by a ‘frame’ (see Chapter Three) that connects their ‘actions’ of going “in blind down and … fight” with the ‘value’ that “the area should be looked at more seriously” through the ‘causal belief’ that “if it’s local people run you’ve got what local people are looking for”. That is, Kelly and George both believe that ‘the community’ possesses the right kind of expertise for solving local problems and therefore needs to be adequately supported by the public agencies. In this frame, public professionals ‘impair’ residents in their “freedom” instead of saying “What is it that you’re doing that got the results and how can we help you get more results?” Therefore, they are taking a stance by defending the value of their own knowledge and experience and discarding the value of public professionals’ expertise. As a result, these residents are less inclined to openly and respectfully consider what public professionals have to say and express a limited ability to collaborate, listen and trust others in order to unify differences.
In sum, the GCPP was founded on the idea that bringing public professionals and residents together would be enough to unify differences. However, public professionals and residents have conflicting actionable understandings and are engaged in an antagonistic pattern of struggling over what counts as legitimate expertise. Being confronted with an overwhelming amount of information, knowledge and experiences, they are taking a stance to defend the value of their individual actionable understandings and discard those of others. As such, they disregard how their conversations are a process of struggling with the content as well as the value of their knowledge, experiences and emotions. Although there are certainly instances in which they are struggling in a productive way, public professionals and residents in Glasgow do not cultivate their capacity for communicating about the value and limits of individual knowledge, experience and beliefs as well as the importance of and opportunities for unifying differences.
Amsterdam: under the skin
‘Often they just throw [things] into the group, you know, it really comes out of nothing … So … in the beginning I felt a lot of resistance against that, you actually go into defence immediately … (p.152) And of course you shouldn’t do that, because … eventually you hear the underlying story.’
(Yvonne – police officer)
In contrast to the Glasgow case, discussions of the substantive issues at hand in the Amsterdam Neighbourhood Approach (AW – Amsterdamse Wijkaanpak) display a common awareness that community participation requires recognition of the value of multiple actionable understandings. Although they are not always able to avoid misunderstandings and conflicts, public professionals and residents are usually open to considering various bits and pieces of information, experiences and emotions to get under the skin of complex local problems. Yvonne (the police officer we met in the previous chapter) illuminates how struggling in Amsterdam takes shape through a habitual pattern of getting under the skin: rather than going “into defence immediately” when people “just throw [things] into the group”, being open and patient leads you to hearing “the underlying story”. Public professionals and residents think that appropriate solutions for local problems can only be found by getting under the skin of people and their perceptions, knowledge and beliefs. This means that it usually takes a great deal of time, patience, and energy to get to the bottom of things, so that the struggling has a somewhat idiosyncratic character and is very much dependent on who meets who at a particular time and place. Public professionals and residents, then, demonstrate capacity for communicating about underlying beliefs, values and experiences, but often fail to render this unifying of differences more durable and widespread.
As public professionals and residents tend to take a large amount of practical details, nuances and ambiguities into account, they are continuously struggling to develop their joint understandings beyond concrete situations. They regularly manage to integrate actionable understandings to resolve particular problems, but this involves such intensive work on the specific details of the issue at hand that they are not always able to learn from such experiences how to act in future situations. For instance, during an interview, Sevgi (a resident who organises small group events such as sewing classes and language lessons for immigrant women) could reproduce little of the discussion with public professionals of the City District Maintenance Department about dealing with garbage and litter problems at the resident meeting she had attended a few days before. But she has detailed knowledge of all the small scale social activities of immigrant women in the neighbourhood who “do that unnoticed I think. But still it works out well.” Public professionals and residents are often unable to deepen and broaden their (p.153) productive struggling with such detailed and secluded actionable understandings. Regularly, subtle differences of interpretation and emotional signals remain unnoticed or unaddressed, and, where these are picked up by specific individuals, they may not be able to communicate them to others who have not been involved in the situation. In other words, the capacity to communicate about substantive issues remains under the skin of particular persons and situations rather than unifying differences with an ever-expanding whole of views, knowledge, experiences, feelings, and values in the total situation.
Public professionals and residents in Bos & Lommer have a great deal of detailed knowledge and know-how about the many seemingly small problems (see Chapter Five) which are present in the neighbourhood. They constantly run into a complex array of minutiae, ambiguities, perceptions and emotions that they cannot solve on their own or at that particular moment. For example, through several interviews and meetings I found out that something seemingly simple like excessive kerbside garbage disposal and street litter was related to:
• the ongoing – and regularly protracted – demolition, reconstruction and relocation projects of the various housing corporations;
• a lack of awareness and understanding of, or respect for, the rules for keeping public spaces clean among residents;
• insufficient police resources to monitor violations;
• the routes and timetables of the garbage disposal service;
• the lack of resources and time to communicate the rules to all residents in languages they understand;
• poor communication between housing corporations, the City District and contractors about changes to plans or exceptions to rules.
Therefore, exchanging information, knowledge and experience is a continuous process of struggling by public professionals and residents trying to get under the skin of local problems.
We return to Yvonne, who further explains how she struggles with deciding what to do with the information she is confronted with during her encounters with residents:
‘…with resident participation … you actually don’t do anything else than responding to complaints and reports that come in. There are so many of those that it’s impossible to deal with all of them. Those are complaints about, um, hey, nuisance by neighbours, but it then appears that there (p.154) are very long stories behind that, or you don’t really find out. People complain or feel unsafe because of those neighbours or sometimes hear things that aren’t there, they hear that in gossip, and you have to, you’re then digging a lot for the concrete complaint that’s behind it and also … you can do something with. Reports about … things that happen in the street, um, where you’re usually not present at the moment it happens, or just too late, then it already stopped… With a lot of complaints that we get I can’t immediately, um, act upon. And strangely enough, that’s a shame sometimes, because you’re also a do-er, you also want to solve problems, but sometimes it helps more to take it in like a sponge. Actually just accepting that you can’t do much except lending an ear, sometimes registering it and sometimes there is a moment later when you can address it… This way you do get to know a neighbourhood like this very well of course. And all sorts of complaints that are behind it.’
(Yvonne – police officer)
Yvonne explains that being responsive to all the demands and complaints of residents is very difficult, because of their complexity, quantity and unexpected emergence. Therefore, she organises this narrative of expertise around the metaphor of a “sponge”: “to take it in” and accept “that you can’t do much except lending an ear, sometimes registering it and sometimes there is a moment later when you can address it”. Although she feels the inclination to respond immediately with words or actions, the conversation benefits much more from being open, comforting and patient in listening to the “very long stories behind” concrete statements until she arrives at a piece of information “you can do something with”. Public professionals and residents are therefore struggling to interpret and manage emotions, perceptions, and relationships, find out underlying stories, accept that many problems cannot be solved immediately, and look for creative solutions. Communicating about expertise, then, comes down to public professionals and residents trying to get under the skin of concrete situations, exploring their intricacies together, and tailoring solutions to what seems appropriate in the situation at hand.
The AW was set up to provide extra commitment to, and resources for, broadening and deepening the already existing discussions of substantive issues. The narrative of Mourad (a social worker who manages encounters between residents and public professionals) illustrates how (p.155) getting under the skin of a problem which a resident observes with a playground facility can lead to a productive process of struggling:
‘[S]o for example to change a playground facility, um, that you’ve got a half pipe … for skaters … [and] a resident has something like “Yeah, … skaters … don’t make use of it, … [it’s] rusting away and … there are children … climbing on it. Is it not possible then to take that thing away and put in its place a few small playing facilities for those children?” … [So] that [resident] signals it because she lives across it. And then you see that we have such a construction through which … there is contact, hey, between that woman … and the one concerned with public space, to see like “Okay, how could you give shape to that in practical terms so that it’s good for the resident, it’s good for the one using it, … and that it’s also good for the one who has to place the facility”. So then you get a, yeah, I personally think … very good contact between that system and life world. And yeah, within that we operate as a kind of catalyst, … without taking part in the process you make sure that something results from it.’
(Mourad – social worker)
Mourad operates, in his own words, between the “system world” and the “life world” by organising resident meetings, supporting residents in developing and carrying out initiatives and mediating between the public agencies and the community. Using the metaphor of a “catalyst”, he depicts his work as a dynamic process in which he is a change agent who “without taking part in the process … make[s] sure that something results from it”. In this narrative, catalysing discussions of substantive issues benefits public professionals because they obtain knowledge from residents’ lived experience that they otherwise would not have access to, as well as residents because they get access to the right persons and resources for getting their problems solved. Houssain, a local police officer who portrays his understanding of the neighbourhood as the street view of Google Earth as compared to the top down Google Maps view which colleagues in other parts of the organisation have, provides a similar narrative. He was able to find the perpetrator of a murder in his neighbourhood because he knew that a resident living in the street where it took place was always sitting behind his window at that time and must have seen something. Through his personal relations with the resident he was able to obtain the information that (p.156) led to the arrest. Thus, getting under the skin of problems people, and the neighbourhood can lead to unifying differences.
At the same time, Mourad’s narrative also shows that, going back to the half pipe example, his practices of catalysing discussions of substantive issues is a constant struggling:
‘[But] … then the municipality has to take liability into account, a bit of safety. If they place something they have to take into account how big it can be according to the law … So also in terms of, um, if children fall then the surface for example has to be rubber, or it can’t be within so many metres of another facility or something, those kinds of things. Also that there are agreements that you can have an X amount of playing facilities in a … neighbourhood. So yeah, if you already have exceeded that amount then it’s of course not handy to put another playing facility, um, there. While a resident for example says “Yeah, it’s really necessary for my place.” Very understandable from the viewpoint of the resident, but from that system world it’s still like “Yeah fine, we have agreed this within the system that there are no more than ten playing facilities in this area.” So then it’s not always that easy. Also when it’s about putting oneself in someone else’s position, the empathy of, um, of the both worlds so to say.’
(Mourad – social worker)
Mourad explains that exchanging knowledge and experience is “not always that easy”, because life world (Community) and system world (Planning) comprise divergent underlying logics. While a resident spontaneously signals a problem and offers a creative solution, public professionals tend to respond by framing the problem in terms of regulations intended to assure a fair, safe and equitable distribution of facilities and finances. Mourad is in a position in which he can understand both viewpoints, but observes that “the empathy of … the both worlds” is often lacking. Facilitating real integration of different actionable understandings, then, is a continuous struggling to get under the skin of all public professionals and residents involved.
To further elucidate the differences between Community and Planning narratives, in the next two stories, Riet (the proactive resident who told the story about the meeting which she turned around at the beginning of Chapter One) and Dennis (the neighbourhood manager who portrayed the situation of the AW as an ‘obscure pallette’ (p.157) in Chapter Five) share their experiences with refurbishing one of the many playgrounds in the area:
‘Um, I have asked for a toilet for gents in that swimming pool. I say “It’s dead easy, in the corner… If you make a T-junction there to the drain of the janitor office … there’s a toilet for children”… I also requested all that, there’s a changing facility for mothers … that they can go with their baby stuff and a clean diaper, garbage can, everything’s taken care of. I say “If there’s a toilet there already anyway, why can’t there be a T-junction, so that gents toilet is also connected to that?” “Yeah, but then a cleaning service has to come as well.” I say “What’s this? … Is that so difficult? Just send someone? The janitor office also has to be cleaned, then it’s not that difficult for him to also do that toilet seat or just, he has the stuff in the cart anyway. Or do I see, am I blind?” I say “You just can’t organise anything, you just don’t see it, you’re being so stupid”… No, they’re now pissing against all the trees. With the consequence that those children are watching how those men are peeing. And it smells. So? Well, they took pictures now and they were in the pool this week and they looked, so I suspect that a gent’s toilet will come now, because it’s just terrible. Because if in the summer those men are going to drink over there and they have beers, well, then you know how it goes … But there are all kinds of bushes and plants there, well, they’re completely destroyed now… And it smells horribly. Because … that guy that lives there on the first floor gets all that smell up there. Beh! Well, that doesn’t make you very happy. So there I asked for a gent’s toilet.’
(Riet – resident)
‘At a certain moment … they had discovered that [playground] as City District Board, because the playground board … didn’t cope anymore financially. The ground was owned by the City District appeared later and the buildings as well. … Um, … someone of Wellbeing had … refurbished it, and also wrote an entire plan. … Well, because the lines between the City District and that caretaker were not that well, that caretaker quit at a certain moment and, yeah, there was a deadlock. And I got complaints from residents like “Yeah, we have such a (p.158) nice pool and we have a nice playground, but it’s not open anymore.”… The problems were stacking up. Because … there would be a renovation of those buildings, there was money for that, yes or no, eventually it appeared to be no. So then you need Real Estate. The support of that playground by Wellbeing was minimal and the caretaking of the playing apparatus was also not well arranged, so the Caretaking Department shied away. So those people were completely on their own. … I finally took some steps, so that Real Estate went to look … Now it is the case that we’re still talking about it while the playground is already closed for a year, because departments are just looking at each other and nobody takes up the initiative to do something structural with it … But then you’re dealing with so many different parts … with Caretaking, with Real Estate, with Wellbeing, … Neighbourhood Participation, residents … In the meantime a lot of old energy bills and water bills of that club got stacked up, they never paid them, … in the end they never got the know-how to run such an association … Well, we’re still dealing with that at Wellbeing to sort it out and make arrangements with [the water company and the energy company] to make sure everything is definitely taken care of. Yeah, those kind of things are terribly frustrating because you’re pumping energy in it the whole time and you’re trying to bring people together and then eventually, um, the result is still unsatisfactory because you can’t, um, yeah, get everyone working together … to make sure that there’s actually something happening in your organisation.’
(Dennis – neighbourhood manager)
These narratives describe a persistent problem that causes a lot of frustration and puts pressure on the relationships between public professionals and residents. Both Riet and Dennis use a ‘tragic plotline’ in which they are the ‘heroes’ who want to solve the problems but are powerless in making it happen. As a resident, Riet is regularly confronted with the urine smell that a group of homeless men is (allegedly) causing. She feels that the seriousness of the problem is insufficiently recognised. The situation is “just terrible”, while it would be “dead easy” to solve the problem by placing an extra toilet. But in her view public professionals are lacking in assertiveness: they “just don’t see it” and “are being so stupid”. In turn, as neighbourhood (p.159) manager, Dennis faces many uncertainties about budgets, rules, responsibilities and options, as well as interdependent organisations who are “just looking at each other” and do not take “up the initiative to do something structural with it”. From the “moment … they had discovered that [playground] as City District Board” until a year later, he has been “pumping energy in it the whole time” and “trying to bring people together”. But in the end “the result is still unsatisfactory because you can’t … get everyone working together”. As such, the diverging knowledge, experiences and emotions involved with Community and Planning limit the ability of public professionals and residents to get under the skin and unify differences in more durable and widespread ways.
Getting under the skin, then, is a complex and messy process in which the great amount of effort and energy put into it does not always translate into concrete outcomes. As a result, discussing substantive issues draws public professionals and residents into a habitual pattern of communication in which they forego critical questioning of the framing of the actual problems and solutions. For example: Why are these homeless men actually there? Will they really start using a toilet? Would physical changes to the relatively closed architecture, more police surveillance, social control by residents, or shelter and care for the homeless not be more effective? Would a different kind of leadership help to get the different local actors to work together? Public professionals and residents could render their struggling more productive by recognising mutual efforts, frustrations and expertise and exploring, adapting and integrating their various actionable understandings. For instance, Riet might try to understand just how deeply embedded fragmentation and technical specialisation are in local governance because the dense Dutch legal system strictly circumscribes competences and legal procedures (Van Roosmalen, 2007) and public organisations are free to develop their own policies and personnel management systems (Van der Meer and Raadschelders, 1999; Van der Meer and Dijkstra, 2000). Conversely, Dennis might invite other public professionals to gather on the playground to experience the problems at first hand in order to motivate them to break through their deadlock.
In many situations, public professionals and residents are struggling equally to solve particular problems andto get recognition for their expertise. People like Riet and Dennis have different backgrounds and experiences and therefore do not see things the same way in the complex and ambiguous jungle of problems, policies and people. Negative mutual perceptions often emerge when getting under the skin of local problems. Consider for example some angry residents who (p.160) complain during resident meetings that they have not heard anything back about a reported violation of garbage disposal and a filed request for bicycle racks. Or, on the other hand, consider Mark (the housing manager from Chapter Four) who is faced with recurring damages in the same housing block, but gets a low turnout at several meetings aimed at addressing the problem. Although public professionals and residents have the ability to recognise the value of the experiences, emotions and knowledge that others have under the skin, frustrations and misunderstandings regularly limit their ability to make their struggling more productive.
In conclusion, public professionals and residents in Amsterdam confront each other with a great many different actionable understandings. They actively participate in each other’s ‘worlds’ in order to exchange information, experiences and emotions across the boundaries of Community and Planning. By trying to get under the skin of people, problems and perceptions, public professionals and residents demonstrate awareness of the need to integrate the associated individual beliefs, experiences and emotions. However, their inclination to be responsive to the details of the substantive issues at hand demands a lot of time, energ, and patience while not always leading to concrete results or durable relationships. As such, they are constantly struggling with how to unify differences. Thus, while public professionals and residents demonstrate capacity to communicate about substantive issues, they often do not manage to unify differences beyond the details under the skin of the specific situations.
Bologna: nuts and bolts
(Elisa – resident)
From a case in which public professionals and residents are struggling with many different details, beliefs and emotions, we now move to a case in which substantive issues are discussed through structured deliberative encounters that lead to concrete decisions. In contrast to Amsterdam, in Bologna’s Structural Municipal Plan (PSC – Piano Strutturale Comunale), public professionals and residents are not in a position to have free floating conversations and delve into the nitty-gritty of complex local problems. As Elisa (who we already met in Chapter Four) puts it “you don’t have a … [blank] sheet, to say ‘Yes, I want this.’” Instead, they discuss substantive issues by specifying the nuts and bolts (“benches or the fountain and the table and the bar and the bicycle path”) of the physical interventions to be made in the neighbourhood. The code nuts and bolts neatly characterises how struggling in Bologna is subject to clear limits on what counts as relevant expertise. Although this aids public professionals and residents in openly articulating their actionable understandings and formulating detailed decisions, it does little to widen their capacity to communicate about unifying differences beyond the formal remit of their encounters.
The institutional format of the participative workshops (see Chapter Four and Five) determined the scope, content and length of encounters, and, as such, curbed struggling about what kind of actionable understanding should be recognised. By taking part in the participative workshops, public professionals and residents certainly learned to consider different types of knowledge, emotions and experiences. On the one hand, this enhanced their ability to understand how the nuts and bolts of technical plans and legal requirements are related to the social dynamics, identity and problems in the area. At the meeting I attended, residents were shown maps, architectural designs, and a scale model of the revised intervention, which were explained in relation to the relevant legal rules as well as their implications for the types and size of greenery and pavement that the residents had originally agreed upon. At the same time, however, residents continue to face grave problems, while the options for public professionals solving these problems are by and large limited to long-term regeneration projects. Being endowed with the nuts and bolts of the substantive issues, public professionals and residents still have a long process of struggling ahead before they achieve the communicative capacity needed to break through this habitual pattern of communication and truly unify differences.
The public professionals and residents who took part in the participative workshops focused their discussions of the substantive issues at hand on specific themes. During the Laboratorio Mercato, the themes were: 1) the relationship of the area with the rest of the neighbourhood; 2) social impact, services and accessibility; 3) greenery and landscape; 4) environmental sustainability and technological innovation; and 5) mobility. During the Laboratorio Bolognina-Est, the themes were 1) the ‘linear park’; 2) greenery; 3) the square; 4) connectivity; 5) services and public spaces; 6) architectural quality; 7) commerce; 8) liveability and safety; 9) mobility; and 10) urgent measures against further degeneration. Each of these themes was discussed in one or more (p.162) meetings in order to move on from broad plans, ideas and desires to concrete proposals. The following story of Fabrizio (an urban planner who became the key figure in preparing and facilitating both laboratori) makes clear how the shared actionable understanding took the form of nuts and bolts of, for example, squares and parks:
‘[S]omething very typical is the discussion about public spaces. So we have this, um, regeneration of Bolognina Est … we have to build new public spaces. For example, … “We don’t have a square, we would like to have a square.” And people discussing about … what kind of square. Will there be shops or not? Trees or not? Where the square should be. Um, and some things like that. Or, um, something about the green areas … Because every time people say “We want new green areas,” but then you have to discuss with them what kind of green, because we have many different kinds of green for different … users. How we can manage these green areas, making them safe? So people talking about “We want to have a … fence”, um, a closed green area, something that is open from nine to five, or nine to nine, and then it’s closed, or maybe it’s better to have an open area. Um, “We should have something inside for example ice cream shops, … a bar or maybe it’s better not to have it, something for sport or not”. You have many different examples of this kind of discussion.’
(Fabrizio – facilitator)
This narrative shows that the desire to change the area means that a lot of detailed decisions need to be taken. Translating a desire such as “We want new green areas” asks for sorting out the nuts and bolts of “what kind of green”: should it be closed or open, what should be the opening times if it is fenced, should there be commercial activities such as bars, should there be sports facilities, what kinds of trees and flowers, how much grass, and so on. Notice how Fabrizio makes a normative leap by stating that if residents say they want a new green area, “then you have to discuss with them” the concrete decisions. This narrative prescribes nuts and bolts as ideal expertise, based on the assumption that each single detail could affect how the park will be used and how satisfactory the physical intervention has been. If these details are not decided on the basis of resident input, in the end the park may match their ideas and needs leading to all kinds of unanticipated or perverse consequences, and moreover, making the whole operation a waste of (p.163) money, time and effort. By focusing on nuts and bolts, then, public professionals and residents strive to avoid the situation where discussions of substantive issues get stuck in all kinds of abstract ideas and desires. It concretises the changes they need to make to the physical appearance, social patterns and liveability of the neighbourhood.
In the interviews, the park often featured as an example of the substantive issues public professionals and residents were discussing. The input of residents was not just written down, but was discussed in terms of their motivations, consequences and quality. For example, facilitators would ask “Why do you want a park?”, “What does it add to the area?”, “What concrete form will improve safety?” Residents were asked to formulate their perceptions and feelings in terms of current and future problems and opportunities. The facilitators constantly strived to make different ideas concrete and reveal the discrepancies, tensions and connections between diverging points of view. Angelo (an architect and one of the facilitators in Laboratorio Bolognina Est) explains how he gave shape to their actionable understanding:
‘I’ve received at the beginning of the Laboratorio the plan … a technical design… that’s not easy to read for the working woman, um, … or for the medic or for the barber. So, … the first thing I’ve done is … searching to transform it, maintaining the project and to break down … the single pieces. Um, there’s a park, um, “How big is this park?” If I say that it is 2000 m2 big, nobody, for few this means something. If I say that is has the size of, um, five basketball courts or seven football fields it starts to have a meaning. In this first phase the main thing that, that I’ve done was, um, preparing the designs like this, … simplifying, um, the content, making nodal points, um, which are the bicycle lanes, these, these, and these, marked in red, um, to explain to them which measurements they have, to let them see what this means with respect to the bicycle lanes, um, that are already there in Bologna. [T]his … line … means the bicycle lane like in this image, like this photo made over there, big like two bicycles passing each other at the same time… I especially had to be present in the Laboratorio to say what was possible and understand what was requested… And when the citizens asked if we couldn’t construct a single house and make only one big park, there was a need to say … that the landowner has an intention to build, to earn money, to (p.164) invest… And so I had to mediate a bit in this too.’
(Angelo – facilitator)
As the participative workshops were part of the new comprehensive urban planning system, the conversations of public professionals and residents often referred to cartographic representations of the area in which specific interventions were indicated with lines, symbols, and colours. Therefore, the facilitators helped residents to imagine how these interventions and their proposals would look in real life by giving practical examples, making drawings of the street view, using maps, photos and 3D models, and accumulating proposals in lists and tables. They then reported the results of the discussion to the Municipality without changing the style of the proposals into technically precise indications, so that residents could still recognise their specific input. According to Angelo, the exchange of expertise required “simplifying … the content” of “a technical design” and “to say what was possible and understand what was requested”. In this narrative, specifying the nuts and bolts of the regeneration plan within predetermined boundaries is seen as a seamless integration of Community and Planning.
Indeed, public professionals and residents in Bologna managed to develop a joint actionable understanding that transcended their individual knowledge and experiences. Residents could now better understand the technical and legal considerations of public professionals, who in turn were better able to imagine the area from the lived experiences of residents. For example, Vito (the planner from Chapter Five who is working on transforming an old railway track running through the entire neighbourhood into a bicycle lane) learned through the meetings about the criminal activities and dog fouling that often happens on several spots along the route. Through his deliberations with residents, the idea emerged of transforming the railway track into a ‘linear park’ that combined the bicycle lane with a pedestrian walkway, greenery, benches and street lighting. However, the deeply ingrained barriers between Community and Planning all but disappeared. Compare, for example, these stories of Alberto, an urban planner whose role it was to explain the legal rules that applied to the residents’ proposal, and Kin Sang, one of the few participating young residents with an immigrant background, who explains his impulsive way of making proposals:
‘[T]he discussion was in a way that they rightly looked from their point of view and asked, … because [according to them] there is a need to construct all this greenery. And so (p.165) there was a need to try and explain that nevertheless, um, there are legal rules, there are, um, numerical limits… They understand … what the law says. … in fact, they asked a lot of numbers, because when there could be a need to make 250 parking spaces, fine, there are 250, but [what] if there [would be] 251…? Yes, … they were very attentive. However, within the limits they understand … For example, in Bolognina there is also the discussion about the bicycle lanes, … you can’t make bicycle lanes everywhere or, [chuckles] there’s really a need to use some criteria. It is better to ask them what their proposals actually are. … And then see if… they can be constructed there, … because they don’t look at the law, they don’t even look at the dimensions of a street, for example. … The legal rule decides that the street needs to be six metres wide, … and … you can’t restrain that … But it is also true that in moments in which you say [this] … they search for the solution thinking about that which has been said.’
(Alberto – urban planner)
‘One evening I said that, um, the military [area] can be replaced by a university campus. Because all the people said “There is a problem of [safety] in the night, there [is no street lighting]… And if you will build shops here it will be like now, because in the night all the shoppers go home in the other neighbourhood and this neighbourhood becomes like a ghost town.” So I said “If you need some human presence there … [to create] a better atmosphere, … Bologna is a university town, we’ve got 100,000 young people in the winter time. So make another place with, um, apartments with, um, public price, a little bit lower than the private price, it’s not so bad. This is a little strange idea that I said in this [meeting], so I said “Why not?” Um, they [wrote it down], but I don’t know where it finished this idea. But, um, I tried to say that, because if you don’t … you can’t in the future, um, only say bad words … you have to try to achieve something.’
(Kin Sang – resident)
Both Alberto and Kin Sang value the discussions of substantive issues in the participative workshops, but their narratives express different beliefs about what constitutes legitimate expertise. Alberto appreciates the ability of residents to come up with creative ideas and understand (p.166) the practical and legal limits of their proposals, but also emphasises that “there was a need to try and explain that … there are legal rules … [and] numerical limits”. This Planning narrative is based on the causal belief that expertise is only relevant if it follows pre-determined regulations, technical procedures and political mandate. However, this belief undermines the creativity and spontaneity needed to deal with complex problems that stretch beyond the fixed limits of the specific project at hand. The Community narrative of Kin Sang illustrates how residents participated by suggesting impulsive ideas which often got lost on the way to drafting the final plans. Based on the causal belief that “you have to try to achieve something”, residents thought freely about how it might be to live in the area in the future rather than “look[ing] at the law … [or] the dimensions of a street”. Although this latter type of actionable understanding was certainly valued, it did not have the same standing as that of the public professionals.
The primacy given to an actionable understanding of formal procedures, legal rules and political mandate fits with the nature of expertise in the Italian public sector. Italian civil servants are renowned for having a strong formalistic legalistic culture (Capano, 2003) that sustains a tendency to favour applying procedures over attaining results. Public professionals primarily have training in law, engineering or architecture, are mainly responsible for dealing with a great deal of administrative law and jurisprudence, and often hold
a dominant view of urban policy based on large-scale projects, which are assumed per se to improve the quality of the urban fabric… This dominant culture … sees the solutions to problems of urban decay and consequent social polarisation in the concentration of urban functions… In this view urban welfare results from adherence to specific standards of density and ratio of infrastructure and services, for which adequate space should be allocated.
To be sure, in Bologna the knowledge and experience of residents is not treated instrumentally based on authoritative arrogance. Rather, public professionals have a sincere commitment to enabling the realisation of residents’ ideas, needs and desires within the present practical, legal and political limits. This conformity with the formal boundaries set to the process implies that unifying differences is restricted. It is out of the question to take the lived experience of residents as a starting point or to contest the formal boundaries. Consider the consequences of (p.167) excluding the experience which Dusnella (who we met in the previous chapter) has of many grave problems in the neighbourhood around hidden criminality:
‘Currently it is a zone that for its structure, … and for the buildings like the social housing, … very cheap, has a lot … of Chinese … a lot of Nigerians, who have almost taken complete rule over some streets, Pakistani, a few Moroccans … and Tunisians, okay. Then there’s the whole Ex-Mercato zone where there are shops run by … mostly Nigerians … The Nigerians who are in this zone tell me that almost always shops are forms of cover up, I mean, drugs, prostitution, and of a reality apparently invisible but everyone knows it … Then … there are Pakistani, Indian, Egyptian and Moroccan shops. These commercial activities are apparently legal, … are normal, also I go there to buy things … Well then, all this is not a peaceful business, this is in my view a business that escapes all control. Because around a commercial activity they make their countrymen come, okay, as shop attendants, okay. I give you a working request, you come here as shop attendant in my shop, after six months I get you a permit, and you remain illegally in Italy, … and you go to do whatever you want, usually expanding the files on organised crime. … And the horrible thing is that … there’s a unification of the Italian mafia, Sicilian and this immigrant criminality … A small shop that sells fruit and vegetables that for the largest part of the week doesn’t have almost anything, then one day it is stuffed with fruit and vegetables and then you find that he is catching flies all the days. However, he stays there, I mean, he has interests. Well, who looks beyond the obvious, and doesn’t organise workshops that much about projects, goes to do something about these things here. Well, … this is the territorial situation, but to understand it you would have to go to get to know it.’
(Dusnella – resident)
This narrative confronts us with a completely different type of actionable understanding than nuts and bolts. Dusnella talks about problems in the neighbourhood which are “apparently invisible, but everyone knows it”. In this narrative, Dusnella frames herself as the hero of the story who “looks beyond the obvious” in contrast to others who (p.168) are only concerned with “organis[ing] workshops … about projects”. This sustains the view that “to understand it you would have to go to get to know it”; i.e., going into the neighbourhood, especially after dark, and looking critically at what is going on behind the façade of everyday commercial activity and private housing. Dusnella explained during the interview that these problems are related to the cheap housing, socioeconomic inequalities, a growing foothold of organised crime, absence of control by local law enforcement authorities, Italy having changed from a country of emigration to a country of immigration over the previous decades, and deficient systems of social welfare and integration. These issues have not been addressed in the conversations that public professionals and residents have had and an imminent solution is not likely to follow from their current actionable understanding. To change this, public professionals and residents would require the communicative capacity for struggling with the complexities of many serious local problems.
In conclusion, public professionals and residents in Bologna managed to turn different types of knowledge, experience and emotions into concrete proposals by focusing their communication on translating broad ideas, plans and desires into the nuts and bolts of plans for the physical regeneration of the neighbourhood. The substantive issues at hand took shape through a structured deliberative process which inhibits struggling about the nature and boundaries of knowledge and experiences. As a result, their actionable understanding is mainly based on a Planning rather than a Community narrative. However, the complex nature of local problems requires public professionals and residents to extend their communicative capacity to unify differences beyond the formal boundaries of their conversations. Therefore, they will have to recognise the struggling involved in discussing substantive issues and adapt their actionable understanding beyond what can be translated into nuts and bolts.
Summary and implications: communicative capacity and struggling
Habitual communicative patterns are not just kept in place by the ways in which the situation is enacted, but also by the substantive issues that emerge when public professionals and citizens encounter each other. Discussing substantive issues is a process of constant struggling with a great many different bits and pieces of information, experiences and emotions. Public professionals and citizens are often lacking in their communicative capacity for recognising the nature and value of others’ (p.169) actionable understandings as their conversations tend to follow habitual patterns. This is not out of ignorance or ill will; they simply need to take on board a great deal of information and knowledge about problems, rules, policies, people, (recent) history, changes and solutions, as well as experiences with and emotions about certain ways of working, suffering from problems, being excluded, and success and failure. While discussing substantive issues, public professionals and citizens tend to limit their struggling to a habitual pattern of communication instead of seeking new, creative ways of unifying differences. They can improve their capacity to communicate about substantive issues by enquiring into how their situated performances of their actionable understanding (cognitive boundaries, grounded experiences and definitions of expertise) can be integrated to unify differences.
Struggling clarifies why the actionable understanding public professionals and citizens have of participatory practice does not always facilitate them in unifying differences. Discussing substantive issues involves a great many bits and pieces of information, experiences and emotions which public professionals and citizens communicate to influence understanding of the issue at hand as well as to be recognised as a legitimate participant in the conversation. They tend to get into the habit of discussing substantive issues according to an actionable understanding of what they need to know in order to act, how to come by this expertise, and who or what can provide it. While this communicative pattern does enable them to discuss substantive issues in certain ways, it limits their sensitivity to the struggling involved with making sense of what is said and what this means.
Hence, public professionals and citizens need communicative capacity for integrating actionable understandings in ways that unify differences. That means, for instance, that when some of them signal, as in Bologna, that talking about concrete decisions and implications of formal plans leads them to neglect many relevant and significant experiences and problems, they could work on getting under the skin of particular people, problems and processes. In contrast, when they realise, as in Amsterdam, that they are spending most of their time delving into the nitty-gritty of specific issues without much in the way of lasting results, they could try to direct their conversations toward pinpointing the nuts and bolts of more structural solutions. In both cases, public professionals and citizens should be sensitive to people taking a stance, as in Glasgow, to defend their own knowledge and experiences and dismiss the value of those of others. They should both treat this as a sign that their conversations are following a restrictive habitual pattern, as well as actively work on turning hard-and-fast (p.170) stances into practical agreements. More specifically, public professionals and citizens can overcome their habitual pattern by adapting the situated performances of their actionable understanding in three ways.
First, the capacity of public professionals and citizens to communicate about substantive issues is limited by their cognitive boundaries. Everyone naturally has a bounded rationality (Simon, 1945/1997) – cognitive limits on processing information formed by individual experiences and influences from the organisation or social environment – for taking in, meaningfully translating and acting upon all the information, experiences and emotions they are confronted with. Some people have a natural ability to absorb and balance a lot of different bits and pieces of knowledge, views and experiences, while others are barely able to keep track of what is going on at a meeting beyond their own standpoint and interests. This is related to their position in participatory practice; for example, facilitators have to mediate between different views, information and emotions, while some people are just there to promote or defend their own particular project or activity. This does not mean that they cannot overcome their cognitive boundaries and integrate. But doing so requires communicative capacity for recognising, lowering and adapting the cognitive boundaries which limit mutual understanding.
The discrepancy between policy ambitions to unify differences and practical opportunities for actually doing so is most glaring in Glasgow. Here, public professionals and citizens have to take into account the views and needs of all the ‘partners’ and the ‘community’, as well as policy objectives and statistics at the urban and national levels. As they only have limited discretion to “get their heads round and feel comfortable with” (Gail) all of this, they are taking a stance by only taking in what fits with their own beliefs, feelings and knowledge. In Amsterdam and Bologna, public professionals and citizens demonstrate greater capacity to communicate across their cognitive boundaries, but here also practical limits on getting under the skin or pinpointing nuts and bolts inhibit their ability to adapt their actionable understandings in order to unify differences.
Second, communicative capacity for discussing substantive issues is influenced by experiences grounded in the ‘system world’ and the ‘life world’ (Habermas, 1984b; Hartman and Tops, 2005). Despite well intended and often successful attempts at integrating differently grounded experiences, deep seated barriers continue to exist between the worlds of Planning and Community (see Chapter Four). Working for a public agency and aiming for long-term structural solutions, public professionals like Mike, Angelo, and Alberto take a ‘bird’s eye view’ (p.171) (Le Corbusier, 1967) of statistical data for the entire neighbourhood or city, regulative norms and legal procedures that need to be adhered to, and the technical or allocative implications of alternative solutions. In contrast, citizens like Kelly, Riet, and Dusnella are the ‘eyes on the street’ (Jacobs, 1961), experiencing such local problems as health issues including smoking, obesity, and depression, homeless men urinating next to a playground, or shops being used as fronts for criminal activities in a concrete, embodied way, that is, seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling these problems for themselves. Participatory encounters, of course, bring public professionals into contact with everyday life and problems, while citizens gain understanding of laws, budgets and plans. But they need to stay alert to the struggling that might be taking place under the surface of apparently integrated experiences grounded in the system world and the life world.
Participatory encounters in Amsterdam seem to bring public professionals and citizens into contact with each other’s worlds, enabling them to understand, for example, their mutual needs, practical opportunities and limitations in doing something about a dilapidated half pipe facility. Nevertheless, when a conflict emerges, it turns out that there is not always that much mutual “empathy of… both worlds” (Mourad). In Glasgow and Bologna, the worlds of Community and Planning are much further apart, with public professionals and citizens much more inclined to be drawn into the logic and dynamics of their own experiences. Although they appeared to manage to unify differences effectively in Bologna, this was more in terms of the system world than the life world, restricting their actionable understanding of the nuts and bolts of the substantive issues at hand.
Third, the definition of what constitutes relevant and legitimate expertise affects the capacity of public professionals and citizens for productive conversations. Such definitions can range from strict and narrow to vague and comprehensive, and they can be explicit or underlying, and generally accepted or contested. While the issues at hand and the ways in which these are addressed might seem natural to those involved in the encounter, closer inspection often reveals how underlying beliefs, values and feelings are subtly excluded from the conversation. Ostensibly effective discussions of substantive issues can easily become unproductive because public professionals and citizens neglect, misinterpret or misunderstand each other in relatively small scale, often hidden, and seemingly erratic and idiosyncratic ways. Such ‘internal exclusion’ (Young, 1996) is anything but harmless, as it can create a situation in which one side (usually citizens) have the feeling they are not being listened to or taken seriously, while the other side (p.172) (usually public professionals) cannot understand why the others do not appreciate the conversations they have worked so hard to facilitate. Acts of ‘passive resistance’ (Scott, 1985) then start to dominate the discussions of substantive issues, feeding into further frustration, engrained beliefs and antagonism, and, as such, limiting the ability of public professionals and citizens to unify differences.
Of the three cases, public professionals and citizens in Bologna adopt the strictest definition of what counts as relevant and legitimate expertise. On the one hand, this enables them to communicate about how broad ideas and desires can be translated into concrete proposals. On the other hand, expertise on many ‘hidden’ problems is excluded because it cannot be captured in formal regeneration plans. In Glasgow, the goal is to comprehensively cover the particulars of all local problems and recognise everyone’s expertise, but a clear idea of the kind of capacity needed to do so is absent. Different definitions of expertise are pitted against each other, with stories of success subtly ignoring the value of citizens’ lived experiences or the understanding of the needs of ‘the community’ gained by walking around in the area rather than relying on surveys. Public professionals and citizens in Amsterdam share a tacit understanding that the details and stories of specific issues need to be absorbed “like a sponge” (Yvonne). But, as the huge effort involved in doing this does not always lead to solutions, frustrations, misunderstandings and antagonism also regularly surface in this case.
Discussing substantive issues is intimately related to the relationships between public professionals and citizens. Integrating actionable understandings is not a neutral process of connecting the dots between various bits and pieces of information, but a social process of recognising, empathising and appreciating. Struggling comes down to the capacity of public professionals and citizens to communicate the nature, meaning and value of their knowledge and experience in ways that others will acknowledge, and, similarly, to being willing to recognise the value of others’ expertise. When public professionals and citizens fail to really unify differences, their actionable understanding can take the shape of interwoven threads hanging loosely together like a badly knitted sweater. Discussions of substantive issues can easily be dominated by struggling for recognition and stalemate between oppositional beliefs, putting the benevolence and sustainability of the relationships that public professionals and citizens have under serious strain. The next chapter will discuss how the situated performances through which public professionals and citizens build and maintain their relationships affect how they address each other and whether they manage to unify differences and develop cooperative styles of relating.