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An Ethnography of the People’s Planning Programme (Bill)

“Whether the plan is well-conceived or ill-conceived, sound or unsound, or a workable or unworkable one by planning criteria […] the success of the proposals is questionable if there is not a full participation of the community for whom [it] is designed.” People’s Planning Committee. Proposal: A Program of Advocacy Planning and Community Development. January 17, 1972.

Roger Bill is a co-founder (with Bill McCallum) of the People’s Planning Programme, a citizens’ advocacy group active in St. John’s between January of 1972 and the summer of 1973. His thesis is an ex post facto study of the organization, its methods, and its effectiveness. His primary sources include internal Programme documents, his own notes and experiences, excerpts from media coverage, and published reports.

Bill describes the PPP’s approach as “advocacy planning,” a method or system of planning in opposition to the established (also 3-P) system of planning (as theory), planners (as professionals), and public bureaucracy. Advocacy planning, as opposed to the existing system of rational best choices, “reflects a notion of competing interests, accepts that a plan is the embodiment of a particular group interest, and in that respect is not necessarily rational” (3). Advocate planners are not autonomous professionals but directly accountable to the public. Bill argues that, because the public bureaucracy can itself be considered an interest (and not simply an extension of the public’s interests), the system of planning, planners, and public bureaucracy becomes a closed loop, inaccessible to those outside it. The PPP, then, is this system’s antithesis.

Bill describes the formation and structure of the PPP in pieces throughout his paper. The group, he writes, was not designed to test a theory or to complement a study, but resulted “more from a hunch […] that the public could exert influence over public planning to a larger degree with advocacy planning available as a tool than without […]” (17). It arose from conversation with co-founder and architect Bill McCallum in the run-up to hearings on a proposed master plan for St. John’s. They sought to politicize the process, to generate public awareness for it, and to facilitate the communication of the unrepresented public. While Bill’s analysis of the PPP may be coloured by his involvement in it, he is careful to point out that the PPP was not formed with academic goals in mind. Bill suggests that the PPP was the first attempt at advocacy planning in the Atlantic provinces.

In opposition to the PPP, Bill establishes two other players: the Other Side and Third Parties. The Other Side in this case is the municipal government in concert with the engineering firm engaged with forming the plan. The provincial government may also fit into this category, however it was not engaged by the PPP and indeed opposed the municipal government in some cases. Third Parties included a variety of professional and planning-related organizations. Some of these were: the Town Planning Institute of Canada (TPIC), the licensing  association for Canadian planners; the Atlantic Planners Institute (API), the local professional association; and the Community Planning Association of Canada (CPAC), a volunteer proponent of municipal planning, citizen participation, and planning education.

The dominant role of the PPP, seen from its beginning, was a vehicle for communication.  In a request for funds in January 1972 they proposed to “provide 1) a source of communication for [planners and laymen]; 2) a procedure by which planning can be made effective from the perspective of the layman; and 3) a means by which technical material may be understood by the layman” (22). Expanding on their methods in April of that year, they proposed using “film, video-tape replay, three dimensional models, photographs, and other visual information” to communicate and translate planning language, and specifically Plan 91, for the public (23). These methods were a product of the ad hoc and multidisciplinary group, but were likely influenced by financial and in-kind support from MUN’s Extension Service intended for video-tape experiments.

The structure of the PPP was informal, with no recognized roles or divisions. It had no constitution, dues, or membership. Decisions were made by the consensus of those “members” present at any particular meeting. As an informal association, there was no membership list or count, though Bill estimates 50 people “did something tangible” in the course of its work (44). Bill argues that this lack of structure allowed the expression of individual motives rather than an organizational one. This attitude is expressed well in one anecdote:

One Friday three of us went to talk with a group of children who were 10 and 11 years old. We were recording our conversation with video-tape. The children became interested in the VTR and we showed them how to use it. They were anxious to use the VTR and we agreed to meet with them the next day at the home of one of the children. On the next day they decided to “make a movie about the city”. They took the portable VTR equipment in a red wagon and went off with it for the best part of the afternoon. At that point they had control of a large part of the material resources of the PPP.

Bill breaks the PPP’s activities into a number of projects, with many smaller conversations and meetings taking place outside and between them. The first project was a series of meetings organized and facilitated by the PPP at their downtown office preceding the public hearings of April 1972. In eight meetings over eight days approximately 350 citizens took part in open dialogue about planning. Sessions were videotaped, edited, and played for each session following, allowing ideas to build over time. The PPP’s budget up to the first project was $2,050: $2.000 from the Extension Service and $50 from the API.

The second project, St. John’s Centre – Planning/72 (SJC), was an exercise in grassroots neighbourhood planning and, Bill argues, a proof of concept for the PPP. “If the PPP was competent and credible,” he writes, “then a coherent plan would come from the process that [they were] proposing,” stifling criticism of qualifications and motives (53). Budget for the SJC project included $12,000 from a federal government employment grant, further in-kind support from the Extension Service, and a $3,000 grant from a branch of the provincial government. As a result, from May 1972 until September 1972 the PPP operated with a paid staff, regular office hours, and a more traditional organizational structure. Approximately eight positions resulted, half from from the project area and the rest from core PPP participants. The final report of the SJC project is included as an appendix and demonstrates an impressive effort in alternative planning.

Further to these major projects of the PPP, Bill’s comments on the political and social climate of the time are illustrative and point to further research possibilities. Particularly interesting are: the unwillingness for cooperation from government, and the brushing-off of PPP-generated reports, which he describes being passed among the public bureaucracy until lost; the competitive and confrontational attitude among various citizens groups competing for funding dollars and political ears; and the attitudes of developers, still apparent today, toward project opponents. He describes in particular two cases:

1. The fight of residents of Blackler Avenue to keep their homes and to obtain public services in the face of a redevelopment/renewal scheme at Mundy Pond. The PPP in this case took a resource role, offering their expertise and staff to a citizens association. Bill describes this as a marked success, in which residents successfully argued the value of keeping their street from an economic perspective not considered by the planners or consulting engineers. That planners eventually found substantial cost savings using their strategy is proof of their success.

2. The fight against Atlantic Place (or for public hearings and participation concerning the design of and process behind it) in which the PPP played a limited and piecemeal role before the effort was taken up by other community groups. Bill’s description of the political and financial ties of all parties conveys a troubling case of urban development. Further troubling is the attitude of the developer, which in Bill’s text comes across as exceedingly defensive to the point of paranoia and open hostility. [I hope to research the conditions surrounding Atlantic Place further, to verify and expand upon his account.]

Follow-up questions:

Did Plan 91 incorporate any PPP-generated feedback?

Has the state of planning changed in the decades since?

Has citizen participation improved, stayed the same, or regressed?

Has MUN since officially contributed to municipal plans?

Who was involved in the PPP, and where did they go?

Further reading:

Sherry Arnstein on the ladder of citizen participation.

Atlantic Place protests and controversy.

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