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THE PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH APPROACH TO THE TEST OF SOUTHERN INERTIA. Comparing experiences to broaden Boundaries of Action in the Environmental and Community Planning Field

Final Report Summary - PARTES (THE PARTICIPATORY ACTION RESEARCH APPROACH TO THE TEST OF SOUTHERN INERTIA. Comparing experiences to broaden Boundaries of Action in the Environmental and Community Planning Field)

This project has the goal of comparing Participatory Action Research approaches and methods of in the field of community environmental planning implemented by Universities in different Southern contexts. This project compares two case studies of community-university partnerships:

- one in the US Mid-South Region (the case of the Graduate Division of City and Regional Planning at the University of Memphis in partnership with the Vance Avenue Collaborative, aimed at promoting sustainable development in Vance, one of the historic African-American neighborhoods in Memphis TN);
- the other one in Eastern Sicily (the case of the Laboratory for the Ecological and Environmental Design of the Territory, University of Catania in partnership with the Coalition for the Sustainable development of the Simeto Valley, Eastern Sicily, Italy).

Both partnerships are aimed at promoting sustainable socio-economic community development in these two lagging regions of highly developed countries and both show the effectiveness of planning strategies adopted in practice by a university-community partnership that embrace particupatory-action research as major planning strategy.

Even from these synthetic descriptions, it is possible to identify many differences between the two cases, where PAR is used to deal with problems of a different nature. In Memphis, VAC is trying to affect decision-making for the benefit of the most disadvantaged, led by a social justice ideal, and deeply inspired by the US Civil Rights debate. In Sicily, the Simeto Coalition is working in favor of a new social organization able to establish a new alliance with Mother Nature, led by an environmental sustainability ideal, but also within the context of the local anti-mafia movement. However, even if inspired by different political and planning discourses and ideals, CRP and LabPEAT researchers share the idea that what really distinguishes PAR from other forms of applied research is the fact that it deals with power (see Hall 2005 for a good literature review on the topic).
In both cases researchers establish a partnership with more (St Patrick Church) or less (the Simeto Coalition) formalized organizations of people sharing concerns about the way planning and decision-making (the Sicilian Region Waste Management Plan, the Strategic Development Plan for the Etna Region, the Triangle Noir Plan, the Vance Choice Neighborhood Transformation Plan) are carried out in the place where they live. One of the main purposes of the partnership is to enhance the powerlessness status of the organizations affecting their ability to shape decision-making for the “better,” being the way “better” is defined dependant, of course, on the situation.
In Memphis, the “better” means forcing city elites to reframe their way of dealing with poverty and public housing. VAC is reaction against a way of framing poverty as a plague rooted in the lack of individual skills of self-improvement which can be addressed through social and physical determinism: HOPE VI is based on the idea that self-esteem educational activities and replacement in a social and physical environment reflecting middle- and high- income social values is a good strategy to deal with poverty of public housing residents. On the contrary, Vance residents and leaders are asking public officials to address the structural causes of their scarce quality of life – the unfair distribution of resources and opportunities within the city – claiming the dignity of their being a community, whose painful history cannot be commercialized by private developers.
On the contrary, in Sicily “the better” means forcing local public institutions to make decisions based upon values of transparency and sustainability, abandoning the long-standing local custom of closing deals behind closed doors with Mafia-related businesses; in particular, the Simeto community is asking to face, in a structural way, the reality that the management of resources such as water, energy, waste, etc. is one of the largest source of profits for the organized crime (Legambiente 2007-2011).
In both cases, the Simeto and the Vance partnerships deal with what might be considered the main challenges for the full accomplishment of the democratic prospect in their contexts. They both embrace a controversial project that challenges decision-making (and the stable structures of power behind it), working on each own “giants shoulders,” in the shadow of the most meaningful social movements that have historically challenged the status quo: the Anti-Mafia Movement in Sicily, and the Civil Rights movement in the American South. Very much in the shadow of the Centre for the Full Employment in Western Sicily and Highlander folks school in Tennesse, CRP and LabPEAT use participatory planning techniques to advance participants’ understanding of their status of powerlessness as a first step for social change. This is a very different use of participatory planning techniques, compared to the well-known consensus-building approach, inspired by Habermas’s Discourse Ethics (Habermas 1983), in which the ultimate goal is the making of a decision that could be shared by groups with contrasting interests (Susskind & Field, 1996; Innes & Booher, 1999). Both Empowerment and Ecological planning go beyond the need of “mediating” between contrasting interests. Echoing Castoriadis' (1997) and Barcellona's (2005) critiques of Habermas' political theory, they operate on a different level: the creation of the collective subject that can eventually affect decision making. The aim is to shape transformative collective experiences that allow people to innovate “for the better” their collective identity, creating the space for “arenas where systems of meaning, ways of acting and ways of valuing are […] transformed” (Healey 1997: 58). In both cases, the arenas are places of painful conflict and/or joyful emotional attachment that touch not just rationality but also deep emotional dimensions of cognitive structures (Marris 1974, Pizziolo & Micarelli 2003).
In the Simeto and in the Vance case, the partnerships initiated a participatory planning process that, at first, did not have any institutional legitimacy; the legitimacy is gained along the way, with:
- Real effects on public decision making (the birth of the River Agreement Initiative in Sicily and VAC’s involvement in the Vance Choice Neighborhood Planning Initiative in Memphis);
- The birth of community-led projects of concrete change on the ground (a community gardens in Sicily and a community-run food business in Memphis).
Both levels of action, the impact on decision-making and the implementation of concrete projects, are crucial for the purpose of shaping a new collective political subject that is able to destabilize old structures of power with new political “instances.” Without concrete projects, the never ending struggle at the decision-making level would be exhausting, and probably frustrating. Vice versa, concrete projects without the effort of affecting decision making would not be transformative enough.

Despite the greatness of the inspiring ideals and acknowledging the good outcomes, it is crucial to ask whether or not the ambitious expectations of the type of community-university partnership presented in this paper are then matched by reality. In other words, to what extent CRP’s and LabPEAT’s work is promoting real social change? Are they producing a permanent modification of existing power structures, decision-making procedures? Are they permanently affecting the way humans interact with other living beings and natural resources?
The Sicilian and the Delta cases, together with many other well-known cases in the literature, demonstrate that PAR is a very promising and fertile ground for planning researchers, whose disciplinary mandate is, intrinsically, action-oriented. If this is true, why do planning research seem to go toward a very different direction (Campbell, 2012)? While some scholars are still debating on PAR’s epistemological validity, others stress the level of frustration that can be associated generated by practical and organizational obstacles in dealing with a research method characterized by a high level of uncertainty: PAR relies on the idea that you modify your road while walking (Bell et alii, 1990) in the face of rigid academic calendars and funding procedures. Is this the reason why PAR is not more diffused in the academic environment? This research suggests that the real reason behind the scarce diffusion of PAR within the academic environment is not the difficult adaptation of traditional researchers to PAR.
With a more Foucauldian perspective, it might be observed that epistemological debates are deeply shaped by existing structures of powers: since the essence of PAR is the redistribution of power (to know, to decide, to act) in favor of the powerless, it is not surprising that such an approach is difficult to “digest” for large institutions whose financial existence rely on the existing power structures.
Both UofM and Unict, together with many other European and American Universities, are increasingly required to depend upon private financial supports. Are they really in a position to genuinely embrace the work of their “engaged” research units, supporting the idea of becoming involved in controversial issues oppressing their communities? Goldsmith suggests that this is not likely to happen, suggesting that instead “universities will continue, quite understandably, to be concerned with their own problems – tighter budgets, increased internal demands, and new pressures from government, alumni, and business” (Goldsmith 1998: 1246).
As a matter of fact, both CRP’s and LabPEAT’s commitment to PAR and social change does not reflect the broader mission of their Universities. Their work is carried out with a limited amount of resources, and the institutional support is very strong on words, but very limited in practice (money, staff support, etc.). It is legitimate to ask: how permanent are these community-university partnerships and their ability to produce positive outcomes?
The reality is that, in both cases, the work is carried out not by external and resourceful agencies (NGOs or similar) but stable local structures based upon a great deal of voluntary work (from the part of both researchers and community members) and the “creative use” of traditional Grants. Beside personal commitments of university and community individuals, there are not stable organizational and/or financial arrangements that can guarantee the continuity of the work that, despite the good outcomes, is still very much uncertain. After small successes within important conflicts, such as the anti-incinerator campaign, social change can be pursued only through long-term committed time and money both for community members and researchers. Dolci’s Centre lasted 13 years, while Highlander, established in 1932, is still a working operation. Both institutions, though, were not part of large and powerful Universities. Was this the secret of their successes? I think this question, if addressed in a open and honest way, might help animate the international debate around the ability of planning research to address a genuine link between knowledge and action and, ultimately “to fortify the ideal of thus transforming Business and Politics -from a sordid struggle for survival into a civic and regional direction of energies to the maintenance and ennoblement of life.” (Branford & Geddes, 1917: p. 215.)