29 January, 2014

Luxembourg - quo vadis?



Last week, on 22nd January, the City of Luxembourg started a new consultation process in developing its 2014 official land-use plan, the ‘Plan Aménagement Général’ (PAG). After inputs were given by Mayor Lydie Polfer and appointed experts, the audience was asked for comments. Unfortunately, the crowd that wanted to attend this meeting was much larger than the Cercle Cité was able to host, so about 150 people stood outside. In response to this high demand, a second meeting has been offered that will take place, Thursday, 30th January, Grand Théâtre (1, rond-point Schuman).

Markus Hesse was lucky enough to attend the first meeting. Below, please find his notes on both the event and the context. A more or less similar German version of this post, “Ein neuer PAG für die Hauptstadt” was published today, 29th January, in the daily newspaper “Luxemburger Wort” (page 11, Analyse & Meinung). A copy can be obtained from us upon request.

The enormous rush to the Cercle Cité to attend the first public meeting to discuss the new general land use plan was, first and foremost, a vital sign: There is obviously a great demand to participate in the future of urban development in the Ville de Luxembourg (VdL). People want to know what is going on, have a stake in the future of the city, and have a voice that will be respected and involved in meaningful ways. This is very encouraging. It confirms, in principle, the participatory approach that the city has engaged, and it concurs with the widespread perception among professionals and the interested public that participation is a rather underdeveloped concept here, both in regards to general policy-making practices across the Grand Duchy and for urban planning in particular. There is an undisputed need to catch up, and this btw, was one major reason why we proposed the SUSTAIN_GOV research project in the first place.
            So far so good. However, preluding any citizen participatory practice with respect to PAG processes, poignant questions must be addressed. Some of these points were raised by members of the audience at last week’s event, and others should be included further ongoing dialogues. These questions are particularly relevant, first, because designing a plan is a considerable challenge, and second, because there is a significant danger that “participation”, after its difficult start, will lose its charm. The questions I refer to do not apply only to the question of how to organize good participation. This is, indeed, important, and requires intuition, expertise and good will, which seemed to be present at the meeting. For many cities and regions indeed, participation is no longer unchartered terrain, so the list of “how to”-tools (discussions, neighborhood gatherings, websites, blogs) are, in fact, already available.
            However, two further points are crucial for the VdL which must be addressed before practice. Firstly, the direction of the voyage must be clarified. Cities need strategies! Only then can mid-term plans and programmes be developed, and appropriately adjusted for changing framework conditions. Only against this background does it make sense to discuss more detailed questions, such as a land-use plan. Without this, without developing a strategy, one is reminded of Mark Twain: " ... after they had lost orientation, they were doubling their efforts." And, in fact, recent urban development in the Capital City is characterized by a striking contrast between a multiplicity of individual building projects and initiatives on the one hand, and a lack of strategic direction and comprehensiveness on the other hand. At this point, it is important to know that a land-use plan can reveal quite a bit in certain detail, but might be too narrow or concrete for achieving a common understanding of where to go in the future.
            Yet, this is exactly the issue at stake: strategy and orientation. Will the Capital City continue to serve as an economic magnet and represent a node in financial market circuits, and shall Luxembourg continue in providing office space for the growing service sectors? Will the prime target be implementing rather expensive, large-scale urban projects that are difficult to integrate in social and urban terms? Or will urban policy begin to seriously tackle the housing problem – for all parts of society? Will the transport problem be approached systematically, by targeting the trans-national inbound commuter flows first, or will Luxembourg end up with another large construction site right in the centre of the capital? These are the sorts of cutting-edge issues that need to be discussed before revising the PAG.
In answering these questions – and this point was rightly made by an audience member at the Cercle Cité – the VdL is not autonomous. Thus secondly, while the city might be an economic magnet, it is definitely not a political island where sovereign decisions can be reached concerning where to go and by what means. One feature that has to be taken into account here – clearly distinguishing the Grand Duchy from its neighboring countries – is the two-level political and administrative structure. As an immediate outcome of this characteristic, the state claims a sort of hegemony in planning and building processes. This has historical reasons and can also be explained by the specificities of Luxembourgian town and country relations in terms of size. Still, the relationship between the government and its municipalities (commune) remains rather unclear and this, itself, is a problem. The state not only provides the legal framework and financial means, but often exerts detailed control of municipal land use and building policy (not seldom down to the last square centimetre). Given the lack of strategy across the municipalities, this intervention even happens sometimes for good reason. However, it generates a certain degree of political friction, which hinders sound policy-making.
            Developing a sense of strategy thus means clarifying the internal and external relations of the city. Internally, where does Luxembourg want to go in mid-term, where are future priorities, and these not least in spatial regards? At the same time, the external embeddedness of the city needs to be determined and understood more precisely: What is the Capital City’s role in the country's wider sustainable development? How can objectives of the state’s regional planning be better coordinated with, and fairly weighed against, municipal development and respective local needs and desires? How can the political process be made more flexible, but effective? Ultimately, these questions also emphasize the role of those actors that were decisive in the economic success of city and country, that are thus also important determinants in spatial development: European institutions and corporations of the services industries. As the Mayor had pointed out at the Cercle, they must not be forgotten.
            Participatory processes can shed light on such issues, thus enabling and fostering an important leap forward: building trust, practicing transparency, and preparing robust decisions. In the very end, participation will not ignite total enthusiasm nationwide about the PAG 2014. Rather, the opposite may be expected: Participation is about revealing different, sometimes contradictory opinions, in order to prepare widely accepted decisions. And in Luxembourg, participation is a practice on unfamiliar terrain. It’s far from being business as usual, and exactly due to the very specificities of the VdL with its international dynamics, linkages and dependencies, the process should be managed with caution. Once the rather typical discretion and secrecy of the nation’s political discourse collides with the insurrection potential of the Internet, this process may end up in a dead end.  It might, thus, be wise not to set the expectations too high in the beginning, but to pursue a more sustainable, long-lasting communication and meaningful exchange. This would also prevent a sort of rapid disappointment in the case that participation turns out to be what it definitely is: a tedious task, but very worthwhile, necessary project.

Link to the City’s process: www.pag.vld.lu

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