Rethinking Place in Planning: Opportunities in Northern and Aboriginal Planning in Nunavut, Canada
Nilsen, Erik Borre, Canadian Journal of Urban Research
There is increasing discourse in the planning discipline with regards to the democratic deficit, a term used to describe the conceptual cleft existing between the state (or other regulatory decisionmaking bodies) and civil society. Interest in the democratic deficit has heightened as governance structures have not managed to ensure widespread social equity. The planning discipline, as a governance form, is presumably geared to supporting the interests of people and places. Therefore, there is mounting conjecture that policy construction must be malleable, meaning it must be made more responsive to the citizens for whom, and places for which, it is intended to serve. This necessarily implies that planning systems require restructuring.
The viewpoint that planning systems should be restructured to ensure more socially responsive policy can be achieved has been particularly pronounced in the field of Northern and Aboriginal planning. This is, in part, owing to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (Canada, 1996), which set a benchmark in conveying that Northern social and economic policy requires greater consideration of context and cultural sensitivities. The viewpoint is also owing to the recent progression of Northern political institutions, and to the increasing organisational capacity of Aboriginal stakeholder groups. These developments have been instrumental in facilitating the creation of the Territory of Nunavut itself, a political entity whose formalisation marks the beginnings of a legitimate movement towards Northern and Aboriginal self-governance and self-determination. As part of this movement, a certain devolution of decision-making authority in policy arenas has occurred. Agencies have increasingly begun to experiment with more grassroots-modelled collaborative planning approaches.
This paper is grounded on the premise that Northern policy development should proceed in view of the right of First Nations self-determination, especially given the predominant Aboriginal population in Canada's North. (1) The paper acknowledges the potential of fledgling governance directives aimed at Northern empowerment, but suggests that collaborative planning practices require a more precise point of focus to ensure those directives adequately address context and cultural sensitivities. Specifically, the paper argues for an explicit focus on place conceptualisation in planning discourses. This is because the manner in which places are perceived factors importantly in the range of choices made possible for contextually appropriate policy development.
Place conceptualisations: perspectives and planning implications
There is an emergent body of literature suggesting that places are social constructs (Hillier, 2001; Madanipour, 2001; Graham and Healey, 1999; Vigar et al., 2000; Healey, 1998; Byrne, 1996). That is to say that place entities are perceptual phenomena. It follows that individuals give meaning to particular locations, each within their own social context, and in relation to the experiences of being in those social contexts (Healey, 1998). Massey (1993, 66) submits that places are "articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings." From this standpoint, the notion of place is largely detached from a physical or object oriented viewpoint of space. As Hillier (2001,97) elaborates, place is a "surface of inscription and identity, offering different meanings to different people."
Taken as a social construct, the concept of place is not straightforward (Healey, 1998a). Yet the planning discipline has historically perceived place in a forthright manner. This is a consequence of the discipline's allegiance to the Western scientific tradition. Rationalistic philosophies of this tradition have implicitly dictated that the discipline support the idea that unitary, unbiased interpretations of places are possible (Graham and Healey, 1999). …