Original article "People, Participation & Place"
By Marcus Adams, Managing Partner of JTP
Published in the Summer 2017 Urban Design Group Journal
Today, whether in the West or East, we face the same challenge of how to build new forms of urbanism fit for 21st century life - more sustainable towns and cities that are safe, healthy and uplifting places to live and work.
JTP hands on planning session for Shahama & Bahia
For more than twenty years JTP has been utilising collaborative approaches to urban regeneration throughout Europe, believing that it is only when the talent, energy and commitment of the public, private and community sectors are brought together that truly sustainable new places can be created.
In our experience, local people can play a vital role in shaping and delivering the places they live and work in, and over the years we have pioneered participatory planning techniques to inform every stage of a project, from inception right through to long-term management on projects of every scale and complexity.
Aerial view of Changzhi Island, Zhejiang Province, China, now under construction
The Participatory Process
Along the way, we have learned that it is critical to understand the difference between participation and consultation. Participation means inviting people to play a meaningful role in shaping their own future. Consultation without participation is simply asking people to pass comment on what has already been decided by others - and can often prompt a negative reaction or breed outright hostility.
The structured charrette processes employed by JTP enables local people to work with a multi-disciplinary professional design team in a collaborative fashion, to create highly specific visions and masterplans which add value at every level – physical, social, environmental and economic –and resulting in more resilient and valuable places.
Structured as interactive, multi-day design workshops, charrette working not only provides benefits in terms of input and quality, but can also greatly increase the speed of the design and approval process. It is a hands-on approach where ideas are translated into plans and drawings, and benefits from taking participants through feedback loops which build understanding and support. Feedback loops occur when a design is proposed, reviewed, changed, and re-presented for further review.
The success of the charrette methodology lies with the skill and experience of the team facilitating the event, who require the ability to engage and inspire stakeholders; successfully manage logistics, mechanics and team working; as well as more traditional skills associated with urban regeneration including vision building, masterplanning and effective graphic communication.
Having used participatory planning successfully across the UK and Europe, in recent years it has been interesting to be commissioned for projects in Abu Dhabi and China, and learn how these techniques perform in different cultural and political contexts, and gain more global insights into the efficacy of this approach for urban regeneration.
Shahama & Bahia, Abu Dhabi: view of the main street in the new town centre
Shahama & Bahia
JTP and landscape architects Gillespies were jointly appointed by Abu Dhabi Planning Council and The Emirates Foundation to engage with the local community in the preparation of the revitalisation plan for Shahama & Bahia.
The brief was to shape future development in response to economic and population growth, liberalised real estate laws, and significant foreign investment. Somewhat surprisingly, it also included the urban regeneration of existing neighbourhoods less than 20 years old.
Running a participatory process in Abu Dhabi required careful thought about specific cultural issues around gender, and the creation of two working environments. These ‘Majilis’ or ‘places of sitting’ were tent structures specially erected on site - one for men and children, and another for women – to allow them to work independently, but on the understanding that they would come together to report back on thinking.
In addition to local community representatives, participants included stakeholders from transport planning, the sports council, environment agency, health authority, education council, the police and also local school children. Through facilitated workshops and hands-on planning, we quickly developed an overview of the serious social impacts of recent development.
Aerial view of the Shahama & Bahia town centre - designed with participation from the local community
Shahama & Bahia had been structured around zoned land uses and use of the car, with neighbourhoods forced apart by four lanes of traffic and large service corridors. These roads had been built parallel to the coast, blocking the cooling sea breeze and creating stifling heat in the streets, which had no trees or buildings close enough to provide shade. Coupled with an overall lack of density and compactness and of local facilities, planning decisions had created a situation where no one walked, played or gathered outdoors.
The direct impacts on everyday life included social isolation for women and children, and a lack of physical activity leading to poor health and substantial increases in diabetes and obesity. Current predictions for future life expectancy in Abu Dhabi - one of the richest countries in the world - show significant reductions within one generation, with the structure of the built environment being a major factor.
Working with local people we developed a regeneration vision for a more liveable community, focused around themes of culture and identity, health and well-being, education and knowledge, and environment and sustainability. In physical terms, new street layouts were orientated to capture the off-shore breeze, public spaces were designed with sociability in mind, and streetscapes were organised to create green and shaded pedestrian routes, with improved accessibility to new local facilities and services. Housing typologies were also explored, including the introduction of contemporary versions of ‘fareej’ - neighbourhoods formed from clusters of homes placed around a central courtyard or outdoor recreational space, with small paths to connect homes to one another and other community facilities and public spaces.
Participants at the Liangzhu Community Planning Weekend
A second opportunity to test participatory planning beyond a European context presented itself when JTP was invited to run a week-long community planning process in the new town of Liangzhu. Built by Vanke, one of the largest developers in China, the design of the town was based on years of research into what makes a model community, and is widely regarded as an exemplary urban project.
Given the political context and social norms of the country, it was unusual - courageous even - for Vanke to suggest engaging with the existing residents of the town, and to invite feedback on what was and wasn’t working to inform future phases of development.
At the start of the participatory process, it was clearly difficult for local people to be openly critical of the project, but as trust and confidence grew, significant issues were raised regarding provision of health and education services. This led to broader discussions about the lack of say that residents had in the day-to-day running of their neighbourhoods.
With Vanke already looking for ways to reduce their responsibility for the long term management of the town while keeping the values that they had introduced, discussions turned to the idea of local self-governance. The final result of the participatory process was the creation of a management body made up of local people, governing the day-to-day decision-making for Liangzhu - effectively a town council, which while the norm in the West, is a concept unheard of in China.
Suzhou Eco Town, Jiangsu Province, China - developed through a week-long charrette process
The projects in Shahama & Bahia and Liangzhu allowed us fascinating insights into the efficacy of participatory planning outside of the western context in which it was pioneered, and reinforced our view that this is a highly versatile methodology that delivers huge benefits for urban regeneration.
Wherever we operate, working in collaboration with local people we encounter similar issues, responses to the participatory process, and final outcomes. There is generally a large disconnect between the agencies tasked with undertaking urban regeneration, and the local communities they ultimately affect. There may well be large-scale public consultation, but few agencies involve local people in a truly meaningful way. As a result, regeneration tends to be focused on visible ‘bricks-and-mortar’ projects, rather than wider revitalisation that includes the complex social environments that underlie everyday life.
This constitutes a huge missed opportunity. Our experience has made us firm advocates of the ‘Wisdom of Crowds’. Bring together a broad range of local people, of different ages and backgrounds, and you will rapidly gain deep insights into the workings of the local area. No one understands a place better than the communities who use it on a habitual basis and share the same experiences; the joys and frustrations of life that build powerful collective perceptions and memories.
Across the UK, in Europe and now in places like Shahama & Bahia and Liangzhu, we find people to have almost identical aspirations: affordable housing, local jobs, less traffic, more green space and opportunities for their children. A common concern for public and private sector clients commissioning participative processes for the first time is that this approach will open Pandora’s Box, unleashing demands for new facilities and services that cannot be met. But this is rarely the case; instead people tend to be modest in their aspirations, often suggesting remarkably simple and effective courses of action to solve their own problems.
Aerial view of Wuxi, China - a mixed-use neighbourhood on either side of the Grand Canal
Over the years we’ve also observed how the public’s response to being invited to participate tends to unfold in the same way: to begin with, they vent frustrations at a multitude of local issues seen as outside of their control. This requires neutrality, active listening, and empathy to move beyond. People are then surprised to be asked their opinions on the future, and moreover, to be granted an opportunity to be creative. At this point negativity starts to dissipate, interest and engagement increases, people rise to the challenge and a palpable sense of energy develops in the room. As interesting ideas come forward, advocates emerge and new friendships are forged around shared interests and aspirations.
One constantly understated benefit of using participatory techniques in urban regeneration is that these processes actually strengthen communities, marshalling local residents from a multitude of disparate voices into collective entities with clear points of view, and making local political buy-in for urban regeneration plans easier.
While these commonalities played out in a manner very similar to our European experience, working in the different politico-cultural contexts of Shahama & Bahia and Liangzhu also created new challenges. At a practical level, the logistics of organising and facilitating community events overseas requires careful consideration, in particular overcoming the language with interpreters skillful enough to draw local people into discussions, establish rapport and act as a conduit for the experience of the JTP team.
By far the most demanding issue in Abu Dhabi, China and other work abroad is how to maintain momentum and make things happen after the event. Operating within unfamiliar social norms and different systems of governance can be disorientating, and knowing who to ask, in what way, in which forum, is critical to the long term success of urban regeneration developed through participatory processes. For this reason, we have developed a network of local partners, who have a great understanding and affinity for what we believe in and the way we go about it, and who help guide us through cultural intricacies to ensure tangible benefits are delivered on the ground.