Expert Contribution: Benefits and Challenges of Participatory Design Processes in Latin America.
The conversation around sustainability in contemporary cities tends to revolve around systemic issues that seem unsurmountable; escalating carbon emissions, growing inequalities, and impending climate change shocks, (Gilbert & Pearl, 2010; World Bank, 2014). The narrative has turned into a mythological beast whose lore is so vast, confusing, and hard to define that seems conspicuously assembled to disarticulate the urban planning professional. Furthermore, the hubris of the all-knowing urbanist-sapiens may be accountable for locking us into such horrid urban happenings as automobile dependency, amongst other borderline-criminal 20th-century practices. Against such a formidable creature, my most fatalistic inclinations question social sustainability: Can urbanists leverage a positive impact on the lives of the people they design for?
For me, the short answer is; no. Or at least, not by ourselves.
It is easy for an architect, planner, or urbanist to lose sight of the human scale and perspective when tackling complex projects in the context of assemblage systems such as cities. The standard modus operandi in the planning practice consists of a top-down approach that is not only overly deterministic but shamelessly colonialist in its prescriptiveness, leaving little room for chance, informality, or a certain sense of disorder (Sendra & Sennet, 2020).
However, a new wave of participatory tools shines like a beacon of hope for planning with and for the communities we serve, of which Arcadis México is a proud advocate and has developed methodologies for its delivery. For instance, housing demand pressures in a Central American city are at their record highest, even after the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, while current legislation constrains urban character within patrimonial areas, no guidelines exist for the spatial and formal qualities of the built environment and no regulatory framework is in place to outline boundaries for urban development. Subsequently, the real estate market has exerted complete agency to tackle the housing demand but has done so with absolute privatised freedom, resulting in solutions that are detrimental to sustainability goals and arguably a materialization of power dynamics.
The aforementioned has led to an opportunity of high impact. Arcadis, in collaboration with a local nonprofit and the government municipality, designed and executed a series of Participatory Design workshops to develop a community-informed ‘Spatial Territorial Plan’ for the region, facilitating a platform for citizens to engage in their local planning processes through a hybrid modality. Across the span of four days, the workshop gathered valuable input from experts, civic servants, nonprofit leaders, and over two hundred citizens to produce a coherent document with guidelines and regulations to be approved by the local government later this year.
Delivering the workshop, as a core team member, made something very evident from my perspective; This kind of engagement, which actively seeks to rebalance power dynamics inherent in the practice, has the potential to yield remarkable benefits for communities. By doing so, it fosters a palpable sense of democracy within the often intricate processes of urban planning (Di Siena, 2019; Sendra & Sennet, 2020). As I delve deeper into this domain, honing my expertise through continuous engagement with collaborative design mechanisms, I find myself better equipped to discern both the strengths and limitations woven into these innovative tools. Interestingly, these patterns emerge consistently across various interventions, irrespective of the specific methodology employed.
Firstly, the multidisciplinary/interdisciplinary approach provides a myriad of standpoints that add fascinating layers to the proceedings, generating more robustness to the final proposal. However, despite their richness, mediating those different outlooks, on-site, can turn into conflictive negotiations. Secondly, using digital technology to enable citizen participation could both act as an asset and a detriment for overall participation objectives (Willis & Aurigi, 2018). The use of technology and software tools facilitates and provides flexibility for people to engage in the activities and the co-design process without the constraints of travel and proximity; A glimpse of Craincross’ death of distance (1997) manifesting through the looking glass of a Miro board and Zoom calls. However, concerns around the increasing digital divide and the need for diversification and inclusion should be accounted for, as well as digital fatigue inherent to our new post-pandemic realities.
Furthermore, this issue begs the question if distance workshopping is a sustainable way of engaging communities to co-design their cities and drive change. Arcadis has successfully deployed hybrid models for citizen participation in urban planning projects in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, as an example of an efficient middle-ground to execute public engagement. However, such models might shine a light on an uncomfortable truth, or at least an uncomfortable question; Can desktop research, geolocation systems, and audiovisual testimonials substitute for the sensorial experience of face-to-face participatory dynamics? Now that quarantines are over (for now), how can we leverage digital tools for better co-production of evidence and explore what this means for the future of civic engagement?
The narrative arc that binds these insights together underscores the transformative potential inherent in democratising the planning process. With each instance of engagement and every collaborative endeavour, we inch closer to a more inclusive and dynamic urban future. Nevertheless, the most pressing questions as I navigate these engagement tools endure; Is the promise of Participatory Design yet another colonial commodity that should be aspired to, but never fully grasped for certain realities? Can processes be effectively transitioned to countries and regions that are ridden by complex systemic forms of violence, corruption, and democratic facades? Through my recent experiences with Arcadis in Central America, I would argue that, yes, these transitions are possible. They just remain awfully challenging.
Cairncross, F., 1997. The death of distance : how the communications revolution will change our lives / Frances Cairncross, London: Orion Business Books.
Di Siena, D,, 2019. Civic Design Method Whitepaper. [online] Available at: https://civicdesignmethod.com/portfolio/civic-design-method-whitepaper/ (Accessed 8 May 2021).
Gilbert, R., & Perl, A., 2010. Transport revolutions : moving people and freight without oil / Richard Gilbert & Anthony Perl. Rev., London: Earthscan.
Willis, K.S., & Aurigi, A., 2018, Digital and Smart Cities. New York Routledge.
World Bank, (2014). Sustainable Communities. [online] Available at: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/sustainable-communities. (Accessed 8 May 2021).
Luigi Barraza Cardenas