The New Orleans Green Dot Map, generated by the Urban Land Institute, is sterile and difficult to read. However, once this map was released to the general public, New Orleanians were able to use the information to direct the rebuilding of their city. This article quotes one New Orleanian as saying “When I seen that map on the Internet, I said, ‘Mama, they plan on putting a greenway on your house.’”
WikiLeaks’ online release of nearly 400,000 secret reports on the Iraq war is important news for all people, but has a special significance for urban planners.
Most newspapers have centered their findings on details of the crimes committed, emphasizing the gross violation of Human Rights and cruelty deployed by the U.S. armed forces, either by action or omission.
In my opinion, it is perhaps more important that U.S. Government officials, through their secrecy, have been systematically bypassing some democratic values that could have prevented these and other massacres. In many ways, WikiLeaks epitomizes the values stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which include: “the right to freedom of opinion and expression; freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.
Arguments against the leaks have been defensive and aggressive in tone, denoting moral weakness and insecurity. They express themselves as if they were owners of such values and as if they could defend and violate them at will.
How does WikiLeaks relate to urban planning? Democracy is equally important at central and local levels, and urban planning is a discipline that primarily belongs to local governments. The importance of local democracy is this: it is the way people access and directly relate to public administration, where citizen participation in public affairs is most effective and necessary.
Similarly, secrecy does not only occur in central governments; it is sometimes adopted by urban planners, in the name of technical objectivity, as a way of protecting their power. If planners choose to keep key information away from the public, they avoid being accountable to those they are meant to serve. When ideas and solutions are communicated to the public through a sophisticated language and sophisticated diagrams that very few can understand or relate to an on-the-ground reality, planners prevent intrusive opinions that may question their ideas, solutions or performance. This is as antidemocratic as U.S. Military’s secrecy. The latter one has clearly had a much stronger impact, but the values we are dealing with are the same.
Democratic urban planners are those who make their decisions through fair participatory processes, which involves sharing all information through a language that is easy to understand for anyone, listening to people’s opinions, and making planning a learning process for all.