Gurstein, Penny & Leonora Angeles, Eds.: Learning Civil Societies: Shifting Contexts for Democratic Planning and Governance.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Massam, Bryan H.
Pub Date: 12/22/2007
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2007 Source Volume: 16 Source Issue: 2
Topic: NamedWork: Learning Civil Societies: Shifting Contexts for Democratic Planning and Governance (Book)
Persons: Reviewee: Gurstein, Penny; Angeles, Leonora
Accession Number: 179315123
Full Text: Gurstein, Penny & Leonora Angeles, Eds.

Learning Civil Societies: Shifting Contexts for Democratic Planning and Governance.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

256 pp.

ISBN: 0-8020-9119-9

Civil society is a "work in progress" and it is a critical component in the task of mediation between citizens and the state in planning matters where the public good is a prime concern. Green College at the University of British Columbia supported this enterprise by hosting a conference on the topic in their Thematic Lecture series. The authors represented in this diverse volume participated in the conference. The editors and the authors of the eight chapters challenge the reader to reflect on the ways civil society, its institutions and practices, evolve and learn as experience is gained from theoretical arguments and case studies in a variety of contexts in Canada and elsewhere.

Wisely, few prescriptive or normative claims are offered in the book, and the emphasis is on the evolving nature of the concept of civil society as it varies between and within states at different scales. The difficulties in seeking clear definitions and understanding the complex connections that relate to civil society are carefully elaborated in a detailed and thought-provoking introductory essay by the editors, as well as in their brief comments preceding each of the book's two parts. The argument is made that engaging all citizens and giving them the tools to be actively involved in planning and governance is an ongoing struggle. Yet as civil society learns, progress will then be made in engaging more citizens in meaningful ways, as part of the project of citizenship, in order to protect the public interest. This is essential, as the two traditional solitudes of 'planning' (career practitioners and elected officials), typically operating within market economies, have tended not to be as co-operative, and mutually supportive as some would wish.

Part 1 is entitled: Planning, citizenship, and civil engagement in a postmodern world. The opening essay by King provides a wide-ranging review of the past and the future of post-colonialism and planning, after first offering the provocative assertion that, owing to its powerful impact on the ways to think about the meaning and the future of the city, the 9/11 attack in New York 'was the most significant event in half a century to affect the contemporary city.' The essay by Lee is firmly grounded in a case study of over 100 'racialized' girls and young women in Victoria, British Columbia who are struggling with cultural citizenship and identity issues in a city with a strong colonial history, and with very little help from publicly-supported institutions. Gerstein offers a timely essay on ways to overcome structural barriers to citizen participation using the Internet via e-government and e-democracy, while stressing that appropriate measures to ensure accountability and ways to handle censorship are important practical issues to ensure a genuine public dialogue in governance. Forester's review essay focuses on the 'drama of mediation in rebuilding civil society,' and while he notes that 'few claims can be made for mediation in general there is a place for us to learn from thoughtful mediators.' (p138).

Part 2: 'Civil society learning for democratic governance' opens with an essay by Hall, in which he examines the characteristics of social movements that allow them to be potentially powerful forces in bringing about change through increased participation and action. Through a large cross-cultural dialogue and collaboration involving over 300 educators, Taylor, Pettit and Stackpool-Moore review how citizenship is learned (or not, as the case may be) in institutions of higher learning. The final two essays offer detailed case studies: Guijt draws on her field experiences in Brazil and Africa to examine community participation, and Angeles offers insightful comments about decentralization in her alternate reading of the much celebrated city of Naga in the Philippines, a city that has received awards for 'good governance and innovations with respect to participatory urban governance'.

Gujit's chapter is the only one to include a map (of her study area in Brazil--unfortunately no scale is provided), and a figure capturing recent trends in participatory development. These were appreciated by the reviewer: other chapters could have benefited from some carefully structured diagrams to help guide the reader through the mass of information which is often presented in terse, densely-packed language.

As the diversity of Canadian cities increases with the arrival of new immigrants and refugees, the problems of identity and belonging will present growing challenges to us all. They cannot be left unattended. Learning Civil Societies poses the important question, 'how does civil society learn'? and planners, politicians, citizens, educators and others in Canada and elsewhere who seek answers are recommended to read this book. Precisely what has been learned, and the mistakes civil society have made, are left to the readers to tease out from the essays.

Bryan H. Massam PhD FRSC

University Professor Emeritus & Senior Scholar,

York University, Toronto
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.