Digital use and citizen participation in Taiwanese urban development project, the I-Voting experience case in Taipei (eng)

Article published online on Sur-Mesure (french online urban planning magazine)

The Shezidao peninsula in the confluence of the Tamsui and Keelung rivers. Source: Taipei government.

Urban stakes that the democracy of Taiwan has to face are very similar to those of European countries as industrial wasteland renewal, historical and cultural heritage promotion while taking into account the civil society participation will in public decision-making.

From citizen’s participation point of view, Taiwan made a long and continuous move since martial law abolition in 1987. This political will of civil society involvement, engaged from the 1990’s, can be seen through the Community Empowerment policy which was set up in 1993. Going further in this way, Ko Wen-Je the mayor of Taipei city elected in 2015 organizes large public meetings about current urban development projects. More recently, the I-Voting1 process, which has been engaged in the Shezidao development project, illustrates this political will. If those initiatives remain marginal at the island scale, they still contribute in building a shared decision-making and public-private dialogue culture.

Public consultation through I-Voting

In the perspective of a larger citizens participation in public decisions, the Shezidao development project is subjected to local participatory democracy experiment which is called I-Voting process, i.e. online voting.

Public presentation of the three projects submitted to the vote. Source: Taipei government.

The Shezidao peninsula, which actually means « Shezi Island», is located in the Shilin district, near the northern city border and at the confluence of the Tamsui and Keelung rivers, under the sea level. Thus it is submitted to a very high and recurrent flooding risk because no dike has been built yet unlike the other city areas in touch with a river. The peninsula is under a large and complex urban development process covering 293 ha with most of the land dedicated to farming, little industry and housing.

As no master plan has been approved since 40 years, half of the 11 000 inhabitants of the peninsula are illegal and they are not connected to public water and electricity network. The aim of the current local government is to resettle all the inhabitants on site by choosing one of these two options; or to rent a social housing flat, or to buy a flat built by the government. To make this happen, the administration plan to propose to 8 000 people to live temporally on the opposite bank, on the East part of the Keelung River, which is currently under development as well.

Thus, three different projects are about the peninsula’s urban development have been drawn by the local government in 2015. Two projects have been proposed by the Department of Urban Development, which is following the vice-mayor initiative. The Department of Land Use has conceived in the third project. The proposal 1, « Shezidao canal », aims to host 32 000 inhabitants on 180 ha of land. The proposal 2, « Ecological Shezidao », 32 000 inhabitants on 240 ha, and the proposal 3 « Our Shezidao » plan to host 16 000 inhabitants on 240 ha.

Those three proposals have been submitted to public consultation through I-Voting while the inhabitants were able to vote online or in regular polling stations. The vote participants were under the age of 18 years old. 80% had to be resident of the peninsula while the other 20% inhabit other districts of the city.

Even if the vote is not officially decision-making, but simply for reference, it is a first time in Taipei for such a large-scale project. The other I-Voting occurred about giving back a street to pedestrians in Gonguang district but inhabitants had rejected the proposal. The I-Voting process, which was planned originally in December 2015, finally took place in February 2016 with 7 260 voters and abstention rate of about 65% among the peninsula’s inhabitants.

The project which has been chosen is the second one, « Ecological Shezidao »2, with 60,4 %.

Master plan of the project 2: « Ecological Shezidao ». Source: Urban Development Department, Taipei Government.

A restricted participatory ambition

The low rate of participation in voting process, despite the very strategic location of the development project, can interrogate observers about citizen’s involvement relevance. Indeed, if the inhabitant’s participation in decision-making is clear, the mechanism of direct consultation didn’t allow them nevertheless to be involved in urban planning process. The project is still drawn by the municipality. From this point of view, the participatory ambition experiment may appear as quite restricted.

The only way for regular citizens to give their opinion would have been to take part of the Urban Planning Commissions and the public meetings. But those meetings are mostly a way for the city hall and the Department of Urban Development to communicate on the projects while the speakers mostly do it for external political reasons. Urban Planning Commissions take decision about any large urban development project, either it is private or public one. Those commissions are very much inspired by Anglo-Saxon ones, as well as urban planning in Taiwan generally speaking. They are constituted with public servants as well as university professors giving their opinion about the submitted projects. If the citizens are officially allowed to speak, they are not involved in the project making process.

Citizen participation and digital use are not a priori linked but seem to converge nevertheless. That can be seen through the Taiwanese example but in Europe as well with online voting for participatory budgets used by local governments (Paris city, Rennes city etc.). Last elections in Taiwan put in the spotlights personalities that aim to prior citizens participation. It is true at some local levels (Taipei city) as well as the central level (presidency). The recent nomination of Audrey Tang, a former hacker and citizen’s participation advocate, as digital minister3 and the use of Civic Tech to organize social housing in Taipei4 show a certain democratic vitality in Taiwan.

By developing, digital use to promote dialogue between administration and citizens may not be without consequences about making the city of tomorrow. The digital use may contribute to take into account the existing as well as the potential uses but moreover to allow the participation of users presently considered as marginal ones.