Week 12 (Novemer 18) - Participation in Urban Design

Participatory design certainly can be a very useful process, but there also appear to be constraints on its applicability. Given that participatory design tends to be resource intensive, what types of projects/processes require this kind of engagement, and why? What organizations, neighborhoods, and people have the time and resources to design and/or make use of these processes? Which ones are left out? Are there ways to meaningfully engage large numbers of stakeholders, across varied groups, in participatory design?


There are many planning and design situations that make a compelling case for participatory design. One useful criteria could be how public a space is. For example, a community center or new park in a densely populated area makes a compelling case for participatory design. On the other hand, a new intersection in an industrial neighborhood perhaps does not.

Another criteria might be if a project is in an historical area. This might be a typical historical preservation area, or it might be an area with a difficult history, such as the fringes of an area formerly demolished during an urban renewal project. While people might get involved in particpatory design in these projects for different reasons, many would have a strong emotional reaction and desire to be involved.

Also, participatory design is a broad term, and something like a visual preference survey is very different than a charrette. A charrette is obviously much more intensive and much more expensive. Thus, one piece of advise would be to respond to the desire of the public to be involved in participatory design. If there is moderate interest, a more moderate level of participatory design might work great and contribute greatly to the project. If there is intense interest, a more intense type of participatory design would make more sense.

I agree with Derek. Participation design could also be used to ensure underrepresented groups or groups that are not as vocal are given a chance to voice their opinions. Some opinions or groups are going to be heard regardless if there is participation design geared towards them. Participation design might be used as a way to reach out to others to ensure all opinions and viewpoints are gathered as part of the planning process.

I agree with Derek’s assertion that the degree to which the space is public determines the level of participatory design, and I would like to add the importance of agenda. As is argued in the Faga article, designers are wary of “design by committee,? in which the public has no formal education or experience with design, and that design should be left to the designers. However, the public needs to keep designers in check. Faga explains that the “[designer's] involvement isn’t as personal or passionate? as the public's involvement (37). The public lives in the space and is the ultimate user of the built environment, and therefore should have a say in any addition or change to the environment. The public has a right to “overcome the pervasive mediocrity of the built environment? that has plagued cities for the last sixty years.

The level of participatory design is necessitated around a balance between professional designs and thoughtful public input. This balance shifts from one side to the other depending on, as Derek suggests, how public the space is. I believe that special attention should be paid to involving public for infill and redevelopment proposals. These types of development are either in or near existing neighborhoods and thus influence the existing built environment more than, for example, Greenfield development.

Rarely does one see an exurban developer running these types of intensive public input sessions for the cookie cutter housing that is easily developed there. There are rarely days-long charettes, and there are few time-intensive small-group public participation sessions.

(And, before I get too far into this blog comment, I'd like to note that I take slight umbrage with Nelessen's statement that planners "cannot think three- or four-dimensionally.")

Resource intensive processes do require extensive resources: many times, only the projects that are big enough or important enough can justify days-long charettes or time-intensive meetings. Many suburban and exurban developments fall victim to, as Lucy and Phillips have said (in a different class's readings), the tyranny of easy development decisions. Although it is admirable to see that southwest Boston and the World Trade Center can put these intense allocations of resources to good use, it is often unrealistic to expect that small towns can do the same thing.

Many small-town planners simply don't have the resources to use these processes for everyday development; many have a difficult time keeping tabs on the permitting process, coding violations, and zoning. Sometimes, the public participation process suffers as a result.

The easiest way to try to insert larger-scale planning processes seems to come up again and again in this class: training staff in these types of planning processes. By training staff, smaller communities may be able to use these types of processes, where appropriate, to encourage members of their communities to participate in processes like NCI Charettes or processes similar to Visual Preference Surveys™. The processes used by a small but fast-growing town may end up less extensive and less frequent, but by integrating them into a system where they influence everyday workings of a local government – zoning, building codes, comprehensive plans – they can be used efficiently and effectively in a useful way.

Meaningful engagement occurs as a “result of an outpouring of public sentiment? (Faga). Both planning and design processes are all too often limited by access to time and money be it in small towns or large cities. The public participation that occurred in response to designs for the world trade center site required those in power to extend the timeline on the project and invest large sums of money. Here in Minnesota, with a complacent public, the 35W Bridge was rushed through the design process and constructed in less than a year. Our public officials uphold it as a model of government efficiency.

Providing opportunities for public participation in response to public demand seems to agree with Derek’s initial comment that the level of participation allowed in a process should reflect the level of public interest. This view further corresponds to the four scenarios identified in the charrette handbook as apt for a high level of participation - high stakes projects, projects in volatile political environments, projects addressing complex mixed use designs and real projects that include imminent development. Logically, these scenarios are likely to produce a large amount of public sentiment.

As far as the form that public involvement should take, for smaller, community based projects, I think the model Antonio Rosell presented a few weeks back is very applicable. With a small amount of preparation on the part of the designer/planner, the Community Design Group was able to actively engage concerned members of the community. For larger, more general development goals, I believe it is up to the planner to engage the public. A visual survey would be an excellent tool to enhance the comprehensive plan for any community, large or small. Beyond staff training, as Mark states, there should be very little in the way of implementing this form of low cost, limited commitment form of public participation.

I think that projects/processes at all scales require public participation process. However, the level of participation level is associated with the scale of the project. The participation process for the ground zero project was pretty long, because of a tremendous amount of participation is demanded by the public. As mention in the Ground Zero chapter, people are demanding for public participation, they are coming together for a cause. They want the same thing, the better community, where they will reside for a long period of time.

As Ian brought up, the planning process as for the case of the I-35 Bridge didn't involved public participation and was rushed through the design process and constructed in less than a year, but it was seen as a model of government efficiency. How did the project pull through without public participation? Didn't people care about the bridge? My guess is that this is a case of exception. My guess is that people want the bridge to be rebuilt quickly for their commute. We wouldn't have the bridge today if the entire public participation process was a part of the planning.

Usually, the larger the scale of the project, the higher level of participation is required. But rarely, one would see a planning project pull through without public participation process.

I’m going to agree with Mark. Large-scale, highly-visible, inner-city projects that involve the conversion or creation of public space warrant a greater degree of public participation. Private, (sub/ex)-urban development projects are primarily concerned with what the market will bear and consumer demand. Resource availability does play into the decision-making process regarding outreach and participation. Often-times, if participation is a prerequisite, it will either be cost prohibitive or a huge budgetary liability. This may take away from a meaningful end product, which is one of the primary objectives of outreach in the first place. With finite funding resources, it also depends on project scale. In the case of small-scale neighborhood redevelopment projects, the community benefit variable is maximized but this all occurs in the most resource-restricted environment. Usually, CBOs and CDCs are far more connected to the community and already know what is desired and what the major concerns are, that formal and costly outreach is almost unnecessary.

I agree with Hoang that people are demanding more of a voice in the decision making process but I ask the question how much of that voice are we really willing to let in and usher into the end product? I find the WTC plans a wonderful example of the disconnect between public feedback and end results.

While the WTC utilized participatory planning on a large scale it is interesting to note, that in the end, the winning plan was minimally (if at all) implemented in the design that is moving forward. Libeskind’s plan did take the community feedback into account however, Silverstein (WTC lease holder) was unhappy with the plan and hired Skidmore Owings and Merrill to take on the role of Architect of Record with Libeskind and his plan playing a minimal role, designing only 4% of the end design. (http://nymag.com/nymetro/arts/architecture/reviews/n_9348/)

This really brings to question what the eventual outcome of the participation will be. Will the public’s opinion be visible in the end result? If not, is it even appropriate to take on such endeavors as they are expensive both in dollars and community trust? I can see the benefit of involving community into more of the decision making processes on every level however, in order to make that participation worthwhile we must implement the ideas in the end. This implementation is difficult as it requires professionals to relinquish some of the decision making to the public.

I agree with Catherine - processes that spend time and money involving the public in design decisions but do not actually attempt to implement the ideas into the final design are a little ridiculous. The World Trade Center reading certainly describes this process on a huge and expensive scale. In many ways it gets back to the ladder of participation as participation in design demands a certain level of collaboration - curtailing this makes the process less useful and fair.

Responding to Ian's comment re how the the 35w reconstruction process was hastily done, sacrificing design, I would say that this presents an example were public participation can be acceptably minimized. In order to restore a vital artery, the public demanded that the bridge be rebuilt quickly - something that could not be accomplished with a typical $250m project at such a complicated site. Indeed, some situations mandate that public officials/representatives be allowed to bypass public comment and act directly on the public's behalf. If these officials act inappropriately, the public may sue for recourse. In examples where time is not so much of the essence, officials are rightfully not allowed this same flexibility.

I feel that participatory design is essential in urban neighborhoods. Particularly if it involves large scale development which will change the feel of the urban fabric. While it can be a resource intensive process, it helps give neighborhood residents a voice and can guide developers and planners in their vision.

A successful example of participatory design here in the Twin Cities has been the Corridor Housing Initiative. It is a partnership model convened by the Center for Neighborhoods that involves city staff, developers, design experts and others to visualize the changes a development will bring to a neighborhood through a hands on interactive exercise. It helps neighbors understand massing and costs involved in creating the development they prefer and can give developers perspective into what a neighborhood may approve of. Not only has it been used in Minneapolis and St. Paul but many suburban areas have used this method of participatory design.

I think this is also an example of when groups partner together to get people involve costs can be diffused. It can also help people visualize the end product and be involved in the design of a development.

The Crewe article and the Faga article address very large scale development projects which have equally large and ambitious public participation components. Both have seemingly well defined processes, specific roles and responsibilities as well as the establishment of solid group norms. The question that goes unanswered for me in both of these examples, when is enough public participation enough?

In both examples, the public seemed to be given a lot of latitude concerning specific design choices. As the Faga article discussed this created tension, “Designers had wanted control through design guidelines and preferred citizen participation in small, discrete projects rather than in larger ones. Moreover, all interviewees expressed frustration of some kind at the public’s aesthetic tastes in general, confessing they found these capricious, weird, or just plain ugly.?

To manage this, those planning the process may consider re-tooling the process so that public participation focused on guiding principles instead of design elements. Reflecting, these guiding principles, designers and planers could then approach the public with a set of options from a buffet of complementary and cohesive set of alternatives.

It seems that public participation on the scales of these two projects is far too big. There are too many stakeholder interests at play. No matter the outcome, someone is not going to be happy. Providing experts with a set of guiding principles brought forward though the public participation process can allow expression of people’s free will, while allowing the experts to practice their craft concerning specific design elements.

Participatory design is essential in projects like the Freedom Tower on the former World Trade Center site, or the new I-35W bridge or the design of any new infrastructure such as a stadium that will affect a large sample of the community. The participatory design process has significant importance for projects like the tragedy of September 11, 2001, toppling of the World Trade Center towers. This tragedy brought an end to old standards of doing things and required planning to be broad based drawing on a number of diverse inputs from across the city in a very open manner. A Civic alliance was created that relied on more than 80 civic, labor, business, environmental groups and academic institution to make sure the public had a say in the rebuilding. And on a much smaller scale some of this drawing of diverse input was utilized for the I-35W bridge rebuilding.

The problem came when there were so many different opinions by people who did not fully understand what or how the project (namely the World Trade Center site) would actually look like or how it would interlink with the rest of the city. Some of the difficulty came not only because of fundamental disagreement over how the site should be used, but because the public and planners were unable to fully visualize the projects total impact. It became necessary for the stakeholders to take their plans beyond the 2-dimensional and present their plans for the World Trade Center site in 3 or 4-dimensions, to more fully see the impact of their proposals on the area.

How do victims, local residents, businesses, architects, and city leaders envision a memorial site and tower that will help rebuild but at the same time preserve some of what happened on September 11, 2001? This is one example where 3-dimentional and even 4-dimentional planning was required to reach a consensus with the stakeholders in this project. Too many planners today are trained to think in the 2-dimensions of zoning. They are not adequately trained to think in the 3 and 4-dimensions necessary to provide the desired design and technical details for illustrating what should and should not be encouraged in a project as indicated by Nelessen. 3 and 4-dimentional planning helps a community better understand the physical and environmental implications of a project under development. The stakeholder can better participate in building consensus of what design best meets everyone’s basic expectations of a particular project. Some of this can be achieved by tools such as Nelessen’s numeric Visual Preference Survey or computer generated 3-D imaging. This visualization can better engage a varied group of stakeholders, to reach a consensus, by improving visualization skills to more fully understand the implications and details of a complex project.

I would think participatiory design processes would be especially useful in situations dealing with especially culturally diverse communities, in particular when the cultures involved are not familiar to any of the professional planners involved in the project. Such a process could serve as a valuable check in case the planners failed to address significant concerns simply due to not knowing them. I agree that the more public a space is, the more participatory design may be warranted. On the other hand, some of the greatest public spaces were not designed by such a process. Frederick Law Olmstead was autocratic, almost tyrannical in jealously guarding total creative control. His results--of course--have few if any equals.

That is correct “some of the greatest public spaces were created without public involvement?. Some of the most successful and most accomplished designers and developers were also the most controversial because of their lack of concern for the public, yet those spaces are still considered a success. From a designers point of view the public does not always need to be in control or be empowered to find success in a space. Also, because public was included in design process does not mean the design was improved. Design is subjective (everyone’s a critic these days on what is and isn’t aesthetically pleasing) but functionality of a space may be different. The public is always affected by the function of a space whether good or bad. This type of affect is not subjective and can be proven to be good or bad. Public and a plethora of other professionals should always be consulted. There can always be unknowns and concerns which are not met because of a lack of consultation on part of developers and designers.

I believe that the public should be consulted on all projects, more than just public and historical space. But I do not believe they should be making design decisions, those are reserved for trained professionals within design (these are not the engineers either). The spaces around us whether private or public are the ones that frame the spaces we inhabit. All projects should involve some level of public participation because even if not empowered the public deserves to be heard or informed on changes made around their “space?. The scope of involvement therefore should not be limited to only public spaces but to those spaces that frame the public also.

I agree with the precepts of participatory design. It is in the design of the participation that is most crucial to a succesful outcome. I've sat in endless meetings where individuals have designed the cabinet knobs and forgotten about the goals of the design project. Stakeholder input is most valuable when there is a process that encourages people to ascribe meaning and functionality to a place, building, or monument. Public input works best when a dialogue begins with planners, designers, and architects. It doesn't work when a project is fairly well along in its design and the public is asked to rubber stamp the design. This is particularly where I've seen public input fail miserably and people retreat to their corners to obsess on what often times are irrelevant details.

I'm not advocating design by committee, which in my experience does not work, but the ultimate design must meet the criteria for success as outlined by the public. A simple example is the classic school playground -- a solid asphalt surface with little to inspire play. Many school's parent organizations have stepped forward and taken the design of play areas back to the users and the result are playgrounds that look much different than they used to look. The students and parents aren't necessarily designing the swings and slides, but they are describing the activity they'd like to see. The execution of that vision is the responsibility of the design professional.

I agree with Eden that participatory design is essential in urban neighborhoods. I also agree with Andy that it is very important in areas with a great deal of diversity. Participatory design can go a long way toward shared ownership of a community. I think that the skills of the expert planners are vitally important, but the need to be informed by the needs of the people who live and work in the community everyday.

While not all input is practical or useful, it is important to gather as much input as possible from as representative of a sample of people as possible in order to establish an open process. And once the final decisions are made, it is important to have a communications structure that explains why the final decisions were made the way they were made. This would help community members understand the process and understand how they can play a role in the design of their community.

I agree with the majority of the people above. I believe participatory design is important for projects that have a significant local concern. Often time, large city-funded projects disregard local community input in the design, even though the project may affect the community. It is important to include the local community's view because in the end the project exemplifies their neighborhood's character and community's values. Because these processes can be very resource intensive, it is important that the burden lies with large organizations or groups to bring in and engage the local community, especially targeting people who normally are undervoiced in our society.

The best types of projects for participatory design are local, neighborhood or community projects. The scale of these projects, when considering the costs associated with the amount of resources required, really lends itself well to the process. I think that the best groups to apply this method to are financially well-off, densely populated, older neighborhoods that have exhibited a desire to get involved in physical restoration efforts. These are the people that would be the most willing to contribute time and money, as well as a strong desire to participate. The groups that are left out are those that are financially disadvantaged and living in areas where no one is willing to invest in any kind of redevelopment or restoration efforts.

On a different note, I think an area that might be on the rise is participatory design of natural areas. We have seen how this is applied to streets and neighborhoods, but we have not really seen it in more natural landscapes. As development continues to move out into rural areas, planners are discovering this opportunity to be proactive about how they plan for the preservation and conservation of natural areas. There are opportunities to get the public involved in the planning process and let them decide how they want their natural areas to look…and participatory design could really contribute to that.

There are many examples where participation can be used quite effectively. Some of these projects can be small. Some of these projects can be large.

A good example has already been stated in the blog, the Corridor Housing Initiative. As stated before, it involved city staff, developers, design experts and others to. It helped neighbors think about planning and design principles they may not have thought about before, and help understand why some decisions have been made they way they are.

I recently participated in a Comprehensive Plan design session, where participants worked on a future land use map. A group of approximately 30 individuals representing a wide range of stakeholders attended. Their task was to spend an entire Saturday working on a land use map that guided the types of land uses that would be used. They spent time arranging blocks, drawn to scale, on a large map that represented various densities equating into a number of housing units.

In the end, a fairly good consensus was derived showing number of housing units and densities for the community. Ironically, a similar map was created by staff and consultant not one month earlier. Unfortunately, the reaction to that original plan was not well received. By involving the public in the design phase, rather than the reaction phase, the reaction to the second plan was 100% better well received.

I see this as a good example of how to tie many of the concepts we have learned in this course, and others, ranging from stakeholder analysis to strategic planning and setting priorities. I don't know that it is necessarily tied to the size of the project that dictates when a resource extensive project should include be used, rather how it ranks as a priority. I could be a land use plan that will be used for the next 20 years, or it could be a simple design for a street scape or intersection.

I love the idea of using design elements to shape and guide participation in planning ideas. Citizens are often uneducated about densities, set-backs, height restrictions, etc, and utilizing design elements as a tool for participation offers people a tangible, commonplace way to be involved. People know what types of designs elements make them feel safe, comfortable, insecure or worried when they see them in a familiar context (such as a street corridor, a building facade, etc.). This can be an excellent way to make a participant feel like they are contributing and offering their own 'expertise' to the planning process.

My worry will always revolve around the lack of prioritization that design standards play in the entire development process. Many other elements are addressed before design standards, and even if a process is facilitated - there is no guarantee that those elements will be realized in the final product. That balance risks the participants' trust, the planner's credibility and, at times, the final products' success. I think about organizations like the Minnesota Design Team, who pour hours of work and effort into creating designs that match the community's wants and needs - but then leave their plans vulnerable to the budgets, politics and leadership of small communities.

Until these types of standards are prioritized or codified (as with Historic Preservation buildings, etc), I think we'll continually have to triage these types of situations.

Someone I work with visits your blog frequently and recommended it to me to read as well

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs