Almost every time when we propose to work with an extensive participatory approach during a design process, we are met with opposition from the different stakeholders involved. The municipal administration and government are concerned about interference with the political decision making. Designers are afraid to lose their artistic freedom. Private clients worry about neighborhood resistance and delays. But also the inhabitants themselves are often very skeptical, thinking that they will be tricked into something. Nonetheless it is our experience that if all parties involved join the participatory process with an open mind and if the process is carried out correctly and completely, everybody has a lot to gain from it.
Continuity is an important condition for a successful process. Creating trust between the different stakeholders is necessary to start up an open an constructive dialogue. Participation is more than just asking peoples’ opinion, it is more than the compulsory ‘information meeting’. It’s a creative collaboration in which residents and users give valuable input to the designers and the designers, in their turn, show how they have integrated that information in their proposals. A succession of meetings is necessary to become a complete process. We stress that it is important to start as early as possible with the first meeting, but also to continue all the way to the end, and if possible even stick with it in the following steps after finishing the design process.
Residents and users have tons of information about the project site from first-hand experience. This kind of knowledge will give the analysis more depth and make it more concrete. A designer can never collect this kind of information in the limited time that he has been appointed to execute the project. That’s why we start the participation process as early as possible. It’s a quick way to collect information and get to know the sensitivities around the development. By giving existing negative feelings a place in the beginning of the project, we leave more space, later in the project, to react to them and turn them into constructive critique. In the first phase we show that we are starting with an blank page. There is no project yet and thus maximal room for participation.
The participatory process can take different shapes in the different phases. During the meetings we want to create an informal and creative atmosphere, using active workshops, round table discussions,… It is always interesting to have the meetings on, or close to the project site. This makes everything more concrete and tangible. We have, for example, often worked with discussion walks along the most strategic spots of the project site. Residents and users discover the qualities and development possibilities of the site for themselves. By experiencing the space some fixed ideas are being questioned. In the second design phase we have often worked with an interactive exposition of the research results. During a whole week stakeholders can visit the exposition and leave their ideas and suggestions behind. Participation can also be organized more directly, using a feed-back-group. This is a group of maximum 10-15 privileged witnesses, representing a wide variation of stakeholders, who are closely involved in the different steps of the design process. Another possibility is working with a digital platform that allows easy and constant interaction between stakeholders and designers during the whole process. A more extreme way of participation is co-production. This is when specific parts of the plan are deliberately left open to be filled in autonomously by (future) residents or users.
On this page we illustrate our approach to participation with some images of participatory meetings from different projects.