Cities prioritizing people’s aspirations

The scale and pace of urbanization are putting pressure on city governments in almost every developing economy as they are still in the process of understanding the needs of citizens, and accordingly, trying to equip themselves with skilled human resources and technological tools. Urban local bodies are also rebalancing the environmental and economic foundations of urban metamorphosis, and integrating policy and programs to improve efficiency, sustainability and accessibility of civic services to ensure social justice for the marginalized and to build a sustainable ‘future city’

Many cities in India are enduring unplanned sprawl and growth. This is happening because the cities failed to anticipate the changing needs and expectations of citizens. But everything in cities is not murky else why would they keep attracting people from all corners. Cities are places of prosperity and new opportunities. Cities also provide fertile ground for innovative ideas to germinate. They are hubs of innovation, new ideas that give everyone hope and belief that the situation on the ground can be altered and urban livability can be improved. Many cities across the globe have come out with various kinds of incredible governance and civic engagement models through which they are able to adapt to the changing urban ecosystems.
These cities exist in every part of the world. Some cities in Asia are rewriting the growth and sustainability models of urban planning. For example, Singapore has shown how to optimize the use of energy and natural resources. Hong Kong has shown the world how to build and maintain high-density urban habitats. Some North American cities are leading the field in environmental planning and economic regeneration. Certain Latin American cities, in particular, have demonstrated innovation by pioneering new transport and governance systems. Despite having a low level of air pollution, European cities have shown how non-motorized transport and public transit system can become a way of life for daily commuters and contribute towards maintaining breathable air. They are exemplars that show that environmental and economic priorities can be synchronized. Australian cities have demonstrated how cities can be transformed into livable habitats by integrating multiple urban factors for one single objective of livability.

Fine exemplars of innovation
The top-down approach of governance and policymaking has been in practice in cities too. Despite being closest to citizens, city governments in many countries are still compelled to implement the policies and programs decided in national capitals. In the times of the Internet and social media when a citizen in a far-flung corner of the country can talk to the highest government authority or leader, it is the right time to strengthen local democracy in true Gandhian sense. Through digitalization, citizens are empowered than ever to have a strong say in city development. This is visible in the rise of informal groups for advocating environmental protection, advocate alternative planning and take-up placemaking projects in cities. Such groups exist in many Indian cities and execute their works in silos. There has been no such initiative from local governments in which a large number of people are involved to take a decision on the spending of allocated funds or prioritizing urban necessities of a particular city. However, citizen forums are an integral part of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA). The absence of such practice leads to mistrust between the local government and citizens.
City government in the Hague, Netherlands is among one of the few local governments that are keen to reverse growing apathy towards government and has suggested Citizens in Action – Democracy 3.0 as a tool to give citizens power over the allocation of 2-3% of local taxes by allowing citizen proposals to be subject to vote. According to a report by LSE, unlike an individual tax break, this idea would encourage citizens to engage with each other to influence how their city develops. This is an excellent idea to encourage ownership and collaboration among citizens and community groups. The capacity to implement this project is supported by DIGID (Digital Identity), which helps identify Dutch citizens on the Internet and is mandatory for electronic tax returns, highlighting how local governance innovation may require national support and infrastructure. Similarly, Gdansk (Poland) is strengthening public trust and engaging local communities in local development projects. Democracy Accelerator is a website that allows citizens to submit their ideas for enhancing the city.

Indian cities and citizen engagement
In India, the Union Government has created MyGov platform in which citizens can suggest on policies and programs. According to the information available on its website, the main objective of the initiative is to establish a link between Government and Citizens towards meeting the goal of good governance. For people who wish to go beyond discussions and wish to contribute on the ground, the platform offers several avenues. Citizens can volunteer for various tasks and submit their entries. These tasks would then be reviewed by other members and experts. Once approved, these tasks can be shared by those who complete the task and by other members on the platform. Every approved task would earn credit points for completing the task. Groups and creative corners are an important part of MyGov platform. It has been divided into various groups namely Clean Ganga, Green India, Job Creation, Girl Child Education, Skill Development, Digital India, Swachh Bharat, etc. Each group consists of online and on-ground tasks that can be taken up by the contributors. The objective of each group is to bring about a qualitative change in that sphere through people’s participation. The ideation of the initiative is excellent but the impact of its implementation is not visible on the ground. The major drawback of the initiative is that the effectiveness of this platform is still not measured or is not available in the public domain to be adjudged. There is no mechanism available through which one can find how successful this initiative has been and what changes it has brought in the lives of people. However, a similar initiative at the local level would bring about a significant change in how our city governments engage with local citizens. Municipal Corporations must integrate their citizen engagement initiative with the platform and this will transform the available tool into a functional state with the intervention of city leaders and community groups. Such an initiative will bring local government closer to the people.
The smart cities initiative had the component of citizen engagement in development of proposal phase in which people’s views are taken into account for selection of projects under the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) but the efforts under the same did not make a mark because most of those engagement initiatives fizzled out as soon as the proposals for smart cities were submitted. The citizen engagement in the implementation stage of the smart cities initiative was absent. Even local city leaders had complained about not being actively involved in the process.

The top-down approach of governance and policymaking has been in practice in cities too. Despite being closest to citizens, city governments in many countries are still compelled to implement the policies and programs decided in national capitals. In the times of the Internet and social media when a citizen in a far-flung corner of the country can talk to the highest government authority or leader, it is the right time to strengthen local democracy in true Gandhian sense

Technological assistance
Citizen participation in city-making through the governmental mechanism remains a necessary cornerstone of democracy. Cities need to develop new and innovative methods of public engagement, especially those that embrace social media, new technologies, and collaborative design methods, to better bring the public into conversations on the future of city life.
No one can undervalue the influence of social media today. It is increasingly becoming a strong tool of communication. This can also be used for proactive citizen participation in governance. City government can organize interactive sessions online where city leaders can directly engage with citizens for a scheduled period of time. Citizens should be allowed to ask questions, register complaints, and get feedback on the issues of their importance. This will make local governance more transparent and accountable. Such an initiative does not require many resources and can be executed if the city leaders are willing.
Former Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson kick-started Twitter town halls on topics such as citizen engagement, homelessness, and housing affordability. With increasing Internet penetration and accessibility to smartphones in Indian cities, such an initiative can be really beneficial in solving basic civic issues of people. Such engagement can steer the development agenda of a particular city. The role of local corporators and city mayors becomes important in such an initiative. Consistent engagement with citizens will also bring forward feasible solutions for the city. The suggestions received can be put up in public forums to discuss its financial and other feasibility.
The aspirations of people for better services and infrastructure are rising. And, cities will have to understand what do the citizens want? People’s aspirations are generally linked to improvement in services and facilities, provision of green and blue spaces, efficient transport, aesthetics, and good design. People aspire to a sense of community and a safe environment.
ULBs need to make efforts to reconceive how and in what shape cities and urban regions should grow. For centuries, people in Indian villages have been forming communities that used to take decisions on development and various day-to-day operations. Citizens have consistently sought alternative ways to form communities and this is true for cities too.
Resident Welfare Associations in these days are a manifestation of such longing of association. Municipalities must formalize an engagement system with people to ensure that they are building the city as per citizens’ aspirations.
The system will also keep tab on whether people’s hopes for cities of the future are in line with the agenda of municipal and national governments. Furthermore, a particular challenge of creating a sustainable future is to make the measures proposed acceptable to the people. Such acceptability is fostered if the suggested way of living is also felt to be maximizing the well-being of citizens.

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