A community-led approach is key to the success of any placemaking project. Project for Public Spaces believes this so strongly that the very first tenet listed in our 11 principles for creating great public spaces is: “The community is the expert.”
So how does this community process actually work? Engaging with this issue at length, the Montréal Urban Ecology Centre (MUEC) has published a useful guide, called Participatory Urban Planning: Planning the city with and for its citizens, which was produced with support from Québec en Forme and the Public Health Agency of Canada. Today marks the release of the guide’s English translation, following the French language version that was launched this summer.
Drawing on the work of PPS, and including other leading experts in the field such as Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl, the text offers a thorough yet digestible outline of the participatory planning process, as well as practical advice for communities looking to activate these projects and processes for themselves.
Participatory Urban Planning does not take the idea of community-led development for granted, and there is an entire section dedicated to highlighting its value in “provid[ing] undeniable advantages when compared to conventional processes managed solely by professionals. Since citizens are in the neighbourhood every day, they can provide observations and knowledge that are different from experts, thereby enriching the analysis.”
PPS leaders Fred Kent and Kathy Madden spoke during the book’s initial publication events in Montréal and Québec City back in May. They were both impressed with the publication: Fred called it “an incredibly valuable resource for any community looking to engage in a placemaking process,” and he hopes it will “encourage more and more cities across Canada to move towards a place-led and community-led pattern of engagement.”
We had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Coelho, a Project Manager at MUEC, to get an inside look at the guidebook. Here are some highlights from the exchange:
What inspired MUEC to create this guide?
At the Montréal Urban Ecology Centre, we have been working with communities for several years in participatory planning to create green, active and healthy neighbourhoods and public spaces in Quebec. We wanted to compile and share what we have learned: the tools and tips that work best to create cities for and with people. We made this guide for anyone who wants to do an urbanism project and include the people who live there.
In the past couple of years we have been using what we learned in Quebec and adapting the participatory urban planning process in communities of different sizes across Canada. This guide is a useful tool to share our methodology and build capacity in communities to transform public space.
Why is participatory planning so important?
A participatory approach allows citizens and professionals to be involved in and committed to the changes in the public space. It is important to combine both types of knowledge, the technical knowledge of professionals as well as the practical, real-life knowledge of citizens who really use public space and know better what would respond to their needs.
Better planning with people makes better neighbourhoods and public spaces, and overall healthy citizens and communities. Also, participatory planning supports active citizenship and democratic governance, these are factors essential for sustainable cities.
What do you feel is the most important factor for ensuring that citizens have a real influence on the planning process?
One of the most important factors is to include citizens throughout a project and from the very beginning; be open enough to allow public debate to shape the plan. Our approach allows citizens to have a voice at the various phases of a project through participatory activities.
However, participatory urban planning does not mean that you involve everyone in every decision, the guide helps identify which stakeholders should be involved at which step.
How did you settle on the "six-phase process" for participatory planning?
Interesting you should ask. We originally had fewer phases, but through our work in the communities we came to the conclusion that establishing partnerships locally with stakeholders and defining the project together was a step that required careful attention and was key to a project’s success, so we decided to make this a separate first step.
Also, we included the inauguration phase. It’s important to celebrate the positive changes in our neighbourhoods and to allow citizens to recognize they had a role in the transformation. So many times great projects are completed and no one hears about them.
But the six-step process is flexible; it can be adapted depending on the scale and particular context of each project. For each phase we propose participatory activities; for instance, an exploratory walk allows us to identify very specific issues at a hyper-local scale of a specific intersection with a small group, a scenario validation workshop permits a larger audience to prioritize planning solutions, and a design workshop can provide populations that are often excluded from design discussions with tools to participate in a meaningful way.
Transforming cities cannot be improvised, it requires the right tools and intention, this guide can help make this happen.
What are one or two of the most important items you want readers to take away from the guide?
Even though participatory planning requires us to change the way to do urban planning, it gives everyone the opportunity to become an agent of change in their living environment. This is what we are aiming for, cities on a human-scale where citizens have power.
As most of us live in cities, and increasingly so, a strategic shift is needed to make these places more in tune with the urban ecosystem: the people who live there, the climate, natural spaces. To deal with all the challenges posed by the modern world, including climate change, we need to work on cities to make them more healthy, active, green and democratic. Participatory urban planning allows citizens to determine how this shift will occur.
Are there any particularly inspiring examples/case studies you'd like to highlight?
I will give you a very local example. We worked with public housing institutions in and around Montréal, and one of the housing projects we worked on had a large courtyard, but residents told us their children preferred to play in the parking lot. The courtyard had been arranged with some avant-garde design elements and no shade or areas to rest, which did not respond to the residents’ needs. We worked with the citizens and the housing managers to create a vision for their living space, held a design workshop, validated the designs and built the new garden with residents, including the children! Not only did the project improve their living environment and reduce the urban heat island effect, but residents told us it also made them very proud of their housing project and helped them develop a network of mutual support among residents. These are some of the impacts we are really proud of.