Reflections about Participatory Processes in the context of Building for Development

by Francisco Vergara

FECH Protest in Santiago. Agencia Uno

FECH Protest in Santiago. Agencia Uno

Sometimes, look back after intense periods of reflection, production and discussion, can open the mind to new interpretations about the learnings and experiences earned.

I am studying for my last exam in the masters programme of Building and Urban Design in Development, particularly in a course called Participatory Processes, taught by Dr. Alexandre Aspan Frediani and Dr. Caroline Newton at University College London. Reading my notes in calm and without concerns about time or deadlines, I feel closest to my country now, due to many things that Chile is lacking in democratization matters and production of equality.

This reflection is guided by the topics of the course and in some way, is a mode to study and produce at the same time. The aim is define my own perspective about participatory design in development countries and in the pursue of that aim, probably I will fail but the route through could be interesting to share.

Revisiting the first approaches to participatory design

“Participatory approaches fail to recognize how the different, changing and multiple identities of individuals impact upon their choices about whether and how to participate, and over look the potential links between inclusion in participatory process and subordination”

Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari (“The case of participation as tyranny”)

Not all participation is synonymous of a positive approach about resolve problems related with built environment, that depends mainly of the way how this processes are developed and who lead the process. Undermine a process of participation with particular interests could be very easy to empowered persons whom make decisions that affect thousands. However, a process leaded in a completely bottom up strategy could break the balance and decant in situations which could be hard to handle.

One of the important lessons from the topic reviewed in the last term is that when a participatory process is started, the hierarchy should be broken to put all the actors in the same level to produce democratic discussions, respecting the backgrounds of each.
This description sounds obvious, but from my experience, many times the government (for say something) face the community explaining what are the plans and strategies to follow, so the relation is still up – bottom. And the community many times just have the role of claiming for changes in the government plans. On the other extreme of this situations, the community organized can put pressure over the government to create changes and the government resists to this changes because are not part of the political agenda.

Break the hierarchy is fundamental, because the role of each actor is add value to the process, not only claim or only listen. As Frediani said, “The process of participation needs to be unpacked, going beyond merely the creation of spaces, for decision making”, in other words, the production of new spaces should be a consequence of a conscious, collective, informed and inclusive proce of decision making.

Deeping about this topic, for each participatory processes there is a knowledge production linked to the understanding of the local culture and related with the aims of each project. This production demand that the methodologies to implement participatory projects should be flexible and adaptable to each case. An strict schedule and checklist of labours to do could decant in failure.

Other main point is the institutional framework in which this processes are developed. The practitioner should be able to understand in deep the normative which frame his work and in that labour find the cracks where the participation could act in an effective way in benefit of communities and regulatory actors.

If the aim is empowerment and spatial transformation, the process must be composed by three main vectors:

Learning: The community, authorities and practitioners must be open to learn new methods, change plans and include new values to each project.

Participation: Not referred just to involve people in process, is about make that each actor be fundamental part of the processes and the outcomes are consequences of informed consensus.

Development: This processes are an interestin opportunity to discuss the idea of development and redefine it from the tensions and agreement among the actors that are part of this procedures.

The participatory process to produce spatial changes able to represent the will of all the actors involved, in my opinion is based on break the hierarchical structures in order to equalize the knowledge and work over the base of respect and common sense.

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