Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Performing Planning: Understanding Community Participation in Planning through Theatre

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Performing Planning: Understanding Community Participation in Planning through Theatre

Article excerpt


Picture the scene: it is a cold Tuesday night in a community hall somewhere in the North of England. Gathered in the hall are the local residents, turned out en masse to be 'consulted' about a new major planning proposal for their community. In the wings the planning officer fidgets and prepares his papers, glances at his prepared statement, and draws a deep breath, ready to go out and confront the community.

This is an experience the author has had first-hand as a local authority solicitor advising the planning committee. It is also a more recent experience as an academic. This time the situation was staged as part of a theatrical performance. The local residents in this case have been the audience and the planning officer an actor.

This paper outlines the results of this performance-based project, which uses theatre as a research tool to assist planners and communities to understand and participate in planning. One of the problems in the planning system is its perceived inability to connect communities' concerns and visions with the hard reality of statutory planning processes (Bailey and Pill, 2015). This interrelationship between the statutory processes and local participation has been an issue for local government for a significant period of time. This research attempts to explore these issues in a robust and innovative way which engages the community in the process of discovery rather than treating them as subject of study.

Theatre offers the opportunity to manipulate time and create a scenario which allows communities, over the space of a few hours, to experience a planning issue which may unfold over a significant period of time. In this way communities can be guided to a deeper understanding of the planning process and start to engage in planning at a more strategic level.

Whilst over the last forty years there have been many attempts to allow those affected by planning decisions to have a say in the process of strategic plan making (see Damer and Hague, 1971), the move to greater participation in planning has gained a further impetus as a result of the 'localism' agenda (Gallent and Robinson, 2012). This is complimented by a wider literature examining public participation in politics more generally. Lowndes et al. (2001) highlighted the proliferation of participatory methods adopted by local government at the turn of the millennium. More recently Fung (2015) has highlighted the possibility that better public participation in governance issues may help overcome issues of effectiveness, legitimacy and social justice.

However, it is often difficult to research community participation in planning in a systematic and robust way. Communities are heterogeneous both in their composition and in the planning issues they face, particularly when they are seeking to respond to societal-scale issues such as an ageing population and climate change. The project aims to develop a new method of public participation that allows greater deliberation not just on the problem at hand but also on the way the problem is framed by both planners and the community.

The play, The Town Meeting, was co-created by the author and a local theatre company. The play is set in a fictitious town faced with a significant planning decision. The audience fully participate determining the direction the play takes during the performance. To date the play has been performed in fourteen venues across the North East (though this paper only covers the first eight venues), ranging from one of the most remote rural communities in England to the urban centres of Newcastle, Leeds and Sheffield. The results of the research have revealed some intriguing insights into process of public participation.

This project set out to create a piece of theatre which was both entertaining and stimulating in the way it engaged communities. In contrast to similar collaborative planning initiatives, such as 'planning for real' or participatory budgeting, theatre is immersive and fully interactive, with the audience having a significant degree of control over the direction the process takes. …

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