Building Dialogue between Local Government and Civil Society in Iran

Stuart Hashagen of SCDC was a member of a group of four from Glasgow who travelled to Iran in December 2010 to provide a series of workshops on community participation and engagement, regeneration and the preservation of historic buildings. A two day workshop took place in Tehran with city officials, consultants and facilitators on 12th and 13th December, and a half-day workshop with officials and students took place in Isfahan on 13th December. There was also a discussion with local workers and researchers in the Udlajan area of Tehran. Tehran street scene

Stuart presented material on community participation and engagement at both the Tehran and Isfahan workshops, took part in discussions at site visits in Tehran, and participated in a workshop with project staff in the Udlajan area of Tehran.

In the Tehran workshop, he contributed to the second day with a presentation centred on the community experience of participation in Scotland in the last ten years, and the development and use of the national standards for community engagement. Available material on community competence and community capacity was not presented due to time constraints and the requirement to translate the input. While some 20-30 minutes were taken up with questions and answers, there was no time for small group discussion.

At the Isfahan workshop the presentation was limited to 30 minutes, and the focus was on the levels of participation and on the background to the development of the national standards. There was insufficient time to cover the content of the national standards, and no time for discussion or questions.

Stuart's observations

"Participants appeared to appreciate the presentations, taking copious notes, having critical questions. I had a sense that the presentations were confirming and endorsing what they already knew, but validating this with direct experience that they may not have. At the Isfahan workshop there was a sense that the ‘manipulation' rung of the ladder of citizen participation was recognised. I got a strong sense that the general understanding of the purpose of engagement was as a better way to get residents to understand and buy into plans and proposals designed at the centre, rather than to identify and take action on the key issues as identified by the communities in question - something that can happen in Scotland too. This perception was reinforced by a strong sense that any participation was limited to theIranians discussing community engagement spheres of physical planning and conservation. Social and economic issues were not really recognised as relevant to the agenda.

Community engagement as understood in Scotland is compromised by the absence of community organisation or a wider civil society. Many participants recognised this barrier and would support the establishment of more robust forms of local democracy that would permit engagement and development to be conducted on a more equal and inclusive basis.

The discussion in Udlajan clearly demonstrated the commitment and energy of the local team to build trusting relationships with the local community and to work with them as far as possible to develop appropriate responses. The ‘problem tree' that was presented gave an insightful and nuanced understanding of the causes of the degradation of the physical fabric of the area, and of the impact of the degradation on the quality of life. The vision for the future of the area was also interesting although, as with many such visions, largely incontrovertible, unmeasurable and largely unattainable. The resultant physical redevelopment plans as presented appeared to be largely drawn up in the architect and planners' offices and the suggested future zones and uses somewhat arbitrary."

(Item posted 28 January 2011)