Participatory design is an approach to design that has mainly been concerned with the development -and design- of computers and information systems. It attempts to actively involve the users in the design process to ensure that the final product meets their needs and is usable.
It is also used in many social contexts, from working life and technological development, general politics, urban design and regional planning, architecture, landscape architecture, as a way of improve environments to be more appropriate to their inhabitants and users for their cultural, emotional, spiritual and every day practical needs. Therefore it is a mutual learning process.
Participatory Design traces its roots to Scandinavian work with trade unions in the 60’s and 70’s, but its ancestry also includes Action Research and Sociotechnical Design (http://cpsr.org/issues/pd/)
There is a growing community of scholars in Europe, Japan and USA that support the urban participatory design, though their contributions vary significantly in the conceptualization of processes to be applied. Practitioners may have very different criteria, which depends on the situation and the scale involved. For instance, Huntington Beach workshops are open to all neighbors and professionals, discussions about many problems in Downtown area are exposed, as parkings, pedestrian streets, retails, landscape, etc. In Chaco, Argentina, architect Victor Pelli organizes workshops with people dealing with poverty and lack of dwellings in areas with no urban infrastructure; in this case, a main problem to solve is the water supply, water connections, bathrooms, bedrooms; in Berlin, it could be related to Turkish immigrants and living quarters in post war massive buildings…
This approach is usually focused on processes, but depending on the neighborhood, it can also be focused on style and design issues.
Sometimes, it has a political dimension, and I have clearly noticed it at UGYCAMBA planning Symposiums at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urbanism of Buenos Aires. The participants were urbanists and architects, gathered to express ideas on different areas of Capital of Buenos Aires, but it was implicit no neighbor would be present. UGYCAMBA exhibitors showed facts, participants could contribute with their opinions, but there would not be any influence on the projects shown by the City planners. I still remember Dr. Max Welch Guerra, a Chilean urbanist from Bauhaus University at Weimar, Germany, though giving courses at the mentioned Faculty of Architecture in Buenos Aires at that time, was not invited to expose his ideas in 2002, as he was a great defender of the real participatory design. Those limited participations are called “pseudoparticipations”, with no real interactions.
In his PhD thesis, John Gotze, based on Masao Hijikata’s theory, explains the importance of counting on a third party. “They are all important participants, but there is a need for an independent, “neutral” mediator and facilitator function, in other words, a third party. This could be a person or an institution. An experienced facilitator who understands and acknowledges the essence of this approach is crucial. It means that success or failure of applying this approach depends on the talent, characteristics and deep knowledge of managing information by the facilitator, who should stay in neutral position, he or she should never try to guide the conclusion. His main role is to offer a creative communication environment, bringing together different parties and interest groups”.
Graphic models need to be appropriate for the participants’ comprehension, abstract drawings would be disregarded; they could be: maps, floor plans, aerial pictures, videos, schematic cross sections, 3 D renders-perspectives, elevations, massive models, digital simulations.
Basically, we advice to follow this praxis:
Address problems that exist and arise in settlements, towns, neighborhoods, cities, articulated by or in collaboration with the affected parties (sociologists, urbanists, architects, historians on one side, inhabitants on the other).
Consciousness of problems
Evaluation of problems; assignment of priorities.
Creation of ideas: find concrete ways of improvement of the built-non built environment plus social issues, by the exercise of creativity.
Evaluation of the ideas.
Communication: models to be clear, graphic representation addressed for inhabitants’ understanding, not directed to professionals.
Attempt to be reflective and respectful practitioners; deal with conflicts, specially if the “dialogue” has angry tones.
Deal with cultural issues, understading of different cultural points of view.
Take part of it: individual attachment and personal engagement.
Share in. Collective action and cooperative activity.
Participation. Learning from each other.
Professional organizers to provide ideas and theoretical experiences.
Participants: listen and judge, provide real experiences
Emphasis on goals and possible achievements.
The moral, based on Victor Pelli’s ideology: we cannot force people into our designers’ idealizations of what their lives must be.
“The resident has the right to be a participant, with an ample measure of power in decision making, in the general definition of his/her dwelling … in the aesthetic definition, not only in the aesthetic codes (signs and styles) but also, and most important, in the priority that achieving the aesthetic effect will have on the application of financial resources destined for his/her house. (Habitar, Participar, Pertenecer. By Victor Saul Pelli. Excerpt from p. 31, 2006).
Workshop in Chile.www.laciudadviva.org/blogs/?p=1797