Since some years, the concept of participation has powerfully started to be part of the ordinary lexicon linked with international cooperation.

The times when the western organizations and experts were unilaterally deciding what to do and where and how to do it has ended, as they started to involve the projects’ local actors, beneficiaries and stakeholders more and more, firstly by only requesting their opinions and feedbacks, then in a more and more active way, giving bigger meaning to the concept of “cooperation” itself.

The levels of participation

The debate on the grades and levels of participation is still open and animate both among the ones operating “on the front line” and at an academic level, being conscious that in this context like in many others, to create protocols and check lists it is not enough in order to obtain an actual and positive, direct engagement of all the actors.

Also in the complex and multidisciplinary field of “urban development”, the theme of participation is fundamental; already since the 6o’s, the direct involvement of citizens in the processes of decision-making and transformation of the environment has started to make its way.

levels of participation in Arnstein’s ladder

In 1969, Sherry Arnstein develops the famous “Participation Ladder”: a scale of criteria that describe, from the lower (manipulation) to the eighth and higher (citizen control), the possible levels of involvement in the political process (Here the original article).

Despite expressing general concepts and being often hard to refer to in complex realities, Arnstein’s ladder is still considered a fundamental scale of measurement of participatory processes, especially for the “participatory planning” ones.

Moreover, the idea of a scale to “conquer” step by step has been re-proposed from many offices and organizations that modified and adapted some of the criteria, but preserving the general structure.

That was the case, for example, of the “Public Participation Spectrum” by IAP2 (International Association for Public Participation) or from the researches by Roger Hart, who examined, at the end of the 90’s, the potentialities of children’s and youths’ involvement for the development or their own communities and cities.

Examples from the Global South

Up until now, we only talked about researches and best practices born, developed and coded in between North America and Western Europe, in normative and urban contexts that are well structured and consolidated. But what is happening, on the other hand, in much more fragmented and spontaneous realities, such as many African, South American and South East Asian cities’ slums?

First of all, it is important to recognize that the spontaneous origin of many of these settlements represent a very strong participative level itself: we are often talking about entire sections of the cities fully built by the residents themselves, therefore the theme of involving the slum dwellers is delicate and it needs to be strongly contextualized.

At the same time, it is fundamental to keep in mind the absence of mutual recognition and therefore of collaboration that can often occur between the slums’ communities and the cities’ institutions; in this case, the criteria developed in our “western” cities lose their meaning, as they are based on a coded relational system between politics and citizens.

Therefore, participation in the context of urban development or slum upgrading is not an abstract criteria to apply with rigid schemes, but it is often an already existing practice (and often at a much higher level if compared to our cities), that simply needs to be rediscovered and given value to, by simultaneously favouring a dialogue with the institutions.

So, it is no coincidence that the majority of the most interesting participative methodologies in urban slums’ interventions are being born in the context of local NGOs, residents’ associations and small cooperation projects, rather than big international organizations.

These methods are mainly focused on two distinguished areas that are strongly interrelated at the same time:

  • the mapping and census of slums and informal settlements, realized by the residents themselves using different methods, being them traditional or more and more based on GIS (Global Information Systems) technologies or simple apps;
  • proper planning, through participatory meetings and shared decision-making processes, both at the level of modification and management of the (urban-scale or often neighbourhood-scale) built environment and for improving the resilience, the management and the environmental and climatic risks mitigation (through methods of DRR, DRA and so on).

In the articles linked below we analyse a series of specific experiences developed during the last years in both areas, by different local or international organizations; these experiences have a lot to teach to our own cities and to our approach towards the built environment.

Learning from slums – participatory methods of data collection

Learning from slums – participatory methods of urban planning (coming soon)

Federico Monica

Architect and Urban Planner, PhD in Urban and regional planning. Founder of Taxibrousse studio, I’m specialized in informal settlements assessment, slum upgrading strategies, low-cost and low-tech building processes.

English version by Carla Procida – interior and service designer

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TaxiBrousse is a design and consultancy studio for international development, we works in the fields of engineering, architecture, urban planning and environmental protection.

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