Public at a Distance – Democracy in Crisis

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Analysis of planning procedures in Belgrade in the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, March 2020 – March 2021

Results of the analysis

In the period from March 11, 2020 when the Government of the Republic of Serbia passed its first decision to ban indoor gatherings, until March 12, 2021, 99 plans were submitted for public inspection or public debate. They included 4 spatial plans (one of them being the Spatial plan of the Republic of Serbia), 5 general regulation plans (including the General regulation plan of Belgrade), and 90 detailed regulation plans (with changes and amendments of the existing plans). Each of these plans was in this period in the phase of early public inspection, public inspection of the draft plan, or at a public session. For one of the plans the entire participation procedure was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ten more plans, for which the public inspection procedure had been carried out before the pandemic, were adopted at the sessions of the Belgrade City Assembly.

  • 45 early public inspections
  • 50 public inspections
  • 49 public sessions


were held partly or in whole.

The Belgrade City Assembly adopted 33 plans.

Gantogram

The epidemic waves, periods of intense spreading of infection among the population, did not considerably affect the dynamics of adoption of plans. The first phase of the pandemic – proclaimed state of emergency when almost all activities were suspended – was an exception to this tendency. Nevertheless, even then, public inspections which had been previously announced and were in effect when the state of emergency was declared, were not repeated after the state of emergency was lifted. They were regarded as fully completed in spite of the cancellations of all activities and total ban of movement. Subsequently, as can be seen from our analysis and spreadsheets, there was no sufficient and adequate adjusting to these circumstances in order to secure real public participation. In the conditions of the pandemic the legally prescribed and mandatory possibility for citizens’ participation was treated exclusively as an unavoidable formality.

The manner in which it was organized and carried out reduced participation to decorum which did not affect the contents of the plans which were being prepared and adopted. The circumstances of the pandemic added to the impression that participants in the process of preparation and adoption of plans – urban planners and institutions – approach public participation as an imposed obligation which mostly affects the dynamics of adoption, while being irrelevant for the contents of the plans.

In the time of the pandemic, public participation was marked by four major occurrences which resulted from this irregular condition: (1) uncertain course and dynamic of public displays, (2) obstruction of citizens’ presence and inspection caused by the measures aimed at suppressing the infection, (3) absence of additional or alternative ways of informing citizens about the contents of the plans in process and (4) reducing the participatory processes to the legal minimum.

The general conclusion of the analysis is that in the pandemic circumstances the public participation procedure had been carried out formally and carelessly. In some cases, (such as the plans for Makiško polje and Avala Film in Košutnjak) the activities, timetable, venues and general ways of implementation aroused public suspicion that participation was not approached in an open manner and with the best intention to really hear the citizens’ opinions, but implemented within the constraints of the legally prescribed minimum with an actual intention to downplay its scope and effects.

The decisions which affected the participation process, especially that of the Planning Commission from December 2020, pointed to another undeniable fact – that the purpose of public sessions is fulfilment of the minimum of legal provisions and norms which „involve the public in the process of adoption of plans and the right of interested persons to plead before the Planning Commission at a public session“, and not genuine public participation in the planning process. From the concluding, third point of this decision, it is clear that it was passed to „enable unobstructed work of the Commission“, and not to improve the public dialog and discussions of the planning solutions at the time of the pandemic.

Although this was not the focus of the analysis, it is interesting to note that ecological issues as major themes of protection of public interest were most efficient in engaging the public. In such cases, special or additional forms of public participation should be considered. To the contrary, in the current circumstances, the plans which anticipated serious changes of the ecological conditions in the city (Avala Film in Košutnjak and Makiško polje) were relatively inaccessible to the public. Besides, planning documents of great importance for the city (and the state) went, as it were, under the radar of public attention. The General regulation plan of Belgrade and Spatial plan of the Republic of Serbia almost completely passed unnoticed.

The pandemic revealed and aggravated all the weaknesses of the existing participation procedure. Based on those experiences, in the coming period we should engage in its serious, in-depth reexamination and (within the bounds of legal possibilities) optimization of citizens’ participation conceived as real input data for lasting interventions in the urban tissue.

More exhaustive conclusions of our analysis, related to accessibility of required information and conditions of conducting early public inspections, public inspections and public sessions, are available in our publication in Serbian, or at the Serbian version of our web site.