Dilemmas

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The empty lot in the middle of an urban residential district was, for many years, a blessing for local families, who could go there with their children to stroll, sunbathe or picnic. It was a piece of the countryside inside the city: there were grass and wild flowers, shady old trees, brambles and lilacs, and fireplaces for barbecues, and the noise of the busy road could barely be heard. However, the people who used the site didn’t always clean up after themselves, and the public utility services were not responsible either. The paths were not maintained, and no one cut the grass or pruned the shrubs in summer. The ground was covered in litter and the site untended. On many occasions, the locals suggested how the site could be improved by the local authority — by planting trees and flower beds, maintaining the paths, and installing benches and picnic tables, for example. However, the local authority never had sufficient money.

One morning, local residents were surprised to find that a huge fence had been erected around the plot, and that security guards and construction equipment had been brought in. The locals were indignant: “How could this happen? We want a park here!” A group of activists got together to protect the piece of land. They opened a Facebook page, set up an information stand nearby and started collecting signatures on a petition. They wrote letters to the local authority, organised meetings, and even tried to damage the fence, although they were removed by the security guards.

The local authority gave no clear answers to the indignant locals. They provided inaccurate information about the address of the construction lot, the name of the construction company, the lease term, the ownership, and the designation of the territory. It proved impossible to contact the construction company, as it was not clear who was actually in charge of the construction. The only information to emerge was that a new residential building was planned for the site. Via social media channels, and a subsequent press leak, locals learned that there were two companies claiming the right to the land: one wanted to construct a multi-storey residential building, while the other planned to move a disreputable vegetable market here from the city centre. The activists were convinced that this was merely a decoy, intended to scare the public into agreeing to the lesser evil — that is, the construction of the multi-storey building.

Discuss the conflicts and possible solutions, as well as the views of the different stakeholders. How do you think this problem can be solved?

Negative

Conflicting interests
There is a conflict between the interests of the company that wants to construct a new residential building, and the needs of the majority of the local residents, who want to protect the land for recreational purposes.
Positive

Possible solutions
  • An open discussion of the situation could be organised for all stakeholders.
  • Meetings could be organised for the local authority in order to present the interests of all stakeholders, make the documents public, and analyse their legitimacy.
  • An explanation could be given to residents concerning their right to use such land.
  • The urban and municipal development plans could be discussed with local residents, and activists and NGO experts could be included in public councils or other bodies supervising public participation in the decision-making process.
  • Greater participation could be encouraged among local residents in the organisation and maintenance of open spaces in order to prevent conflicts before they appear.
  • Constructive dialogue could be initiated between residents and the businesses interested in developing the site.

Varying viewpoints


Local authorities
The local authorities ignore the residents' suggestion to create a park on the site. Due to a permanent lack of funds, they decide to use the land in such a way as to gain the biggest possible economic profit. They opt for the long-term lease of the site for construction, which will bring more resources to the district. Corruption cannot be ruled out, either.

Very often the local authorities cannot, or do not want to, talk to members of the public when developing plans and making decisions. They do not take public activists seriously, instead regarding them as agitators who simply want to interfere with the real work. It is more convenient for the authorities to make decisions on their own and to cooperate exclusively with those who have money. The local authorities do not understand how they can benefit from the participation of the public at all levels of project planning, development and implementation.

Business sector
Businesses prefer to keep quiet, and to reach agreement with the authorities behind the scenes. They do not see how they can benefit from public participation or transparency.

The security company hired to guard the construction site is being made into a scapegoat in this confrontation. The security guards have to listen to all the complaints, and face arguments and abuse, as no one is certain of the real identity of the construction company.

Citizens
Most of the locals believe that corruption is to blame for everything, and that the local authorities have simply "sold themselves” to a rich investor, without paying the slightest attention to public opinion. However, apart from signing the petitions distributed by the activists, they do very little to change the situation. Nor were they very proactive earlier, in terms of creating a public park. They were simply waiting until someone showed up who would give them what they wanted.

Local residents are typically not aware of their rights, or of their possibilities to influence what goes on in their area. They are reluctant to devote time and effort to public activities. They tend to think that there is no possibility to change their relations with the authorities or with the business sector.

Environmentalists
Environmental activists can launch information and awareness-raising campaigns and participate in decision-making processes, although, rather than trying to stop conflicts arising, their involvement starts only in conflict situations. They do not consider themselves as having a say in how the district is run, or as rightful participants in the related processes, but instead have a negative attitude towards the authorities.

Those who are trying to protect the site mistrust the authorities. They behave aggressively and involve the media and human rights groups. They try to stir up trouble, encouraging a negative attitude towards the authorities and the involved businesses. They believe that their opinion will prevail if they organise protests.