The problem with participation in urban development

Participation process in Berlin-Wedding with Ares Kalandides

by Ares Kalandides

I recently had the opportunity to coordinate two workshops that included participation in urban development one in the town of Agios Nikolaos (Crete, Greece) and only a week later in the district of Wedding in Berlin, Germany. The details were indeed rather different, but the basic idea very much the same. In Crete the goal was to think about the town’s identity and to formulate some visions for its future. In Berlin it was about the future of the place: “What do we imagine our neighbourhood to be in 2020”. Both workshops were thoroughly enjoyable, as I always find working with people on the future of their places a very rewarding process.

“I am not sure urban planners are generally very well equipped to use ethnographic methods, at least if I look at most university curricula”

Broadly speaking I see three levels of participation: 1) knowledge and information; 2) decision-making; 3) sharing in value creation. The first is the most common – and maybe easiest form of participation. Its principle is that knowledge is shared, not something exclusively held by experts. The second is more complex, as it’s the principle of democracy: everybody affected by a decision should somehow have a say in it. And finally the third one is the one we always forget: if there is any value created through such processes, this former always needs to be shared in some way. Full participation includes all three.

What is participation in urban development?

This by no means should signify that the rest is not “real” participation. It simply affects only certain aspects of the participatory processes and I think we should be very clear about what we want to achieve in each case. That being said, I have several issues with participatory processes that I would like to consider, although I have more questions than answers:

Participation process in Berlin-Wedding with Ares KalandidesFirstly, I clearly believe in the knowledge of experts, but as everybody involved in ethnographic works knows, there are limits to it. Considering and knowing one’s limitations, finding the appropriate methods for knowledge co-creation are not easy tasks, but there is by now vast literature on how to do it: Workshops, focus-groups, one-to-one interviews (structured, semi-structured, informal), mapping, field diaries – the list is endless. However I expect the researcher to be well aware of the available methods and of their limits. I am not sure urban planners are generally very well equipped for that, at least if I look at most university curricula, but human geographers, sociologists and social anthropologists generally are. Recently, designers have been using interesting visualization methods that I believe can also help.

“I don’t like the abstractions of nominal equality in these cases.”

Talking about participation in urban development decision-making is much more complex, as we need to consider the opportunities and pitfalls of direct democracy. Do we really believe that the people who come to a workshop should have the power to decide for everybody else who’s not there? What about those who had no time, didn’t know where to leave the kids, don’t speak the language well or are simply too shy to speak up in such a small assembly? I don’t like the abstractions of nominal equality in these cases. People come with very different resources to such meetings. Should the more loud aggressive ones have their way? No. Workshops are good to consider what we know – not to make binding decisions – about a place. (Here it would be interesting to consider conditions that can make assemblies such as these work, but this would need deeper analysis, which is not in the scope of this short article).

Participation process in Berlin-Wedding with Ares KalandidesFinally, considering how any possible value creation is shared, may seem too far away from the goals of participatory workshops. However, I believe that it is an important ethical consideration and that it should be very transparent when we invite people to a workshop. They will need to know a) if their opinion will be part of the decision-making process and b) how they will be affected by such a decision. There are always winners and losers involved in spatial development and they should know what it means for them.

This is by no means a deep analysis of all processes of participation in urban development – just some thoughts from recent experiences. I will come back with more very soon.