By Daniel Ross
One of the most fundamental concepts to any multi-stakeholder process is the enormous contribution that citizens can have. The people who live, work, and play in and around public spaces possess expert knowledge as to how these places function as a whole, and often can inform and assist planners in the design and restoration of urban parks, plazas, gardens, and sports fields. By including the neighbour’s of urban parks in their redesign, the participatory approach to planning simultaneously improves public gathering places within a community and fosters greater interaction between people. This approach not only incorporates the physical, material aspects of development, but also incorporates interiority, the emotional, cultural, and spiritual values that we all share. Participatory planning facilitates the creation of vital public destinations where people feel a strong stake in their communities, and make life better for the community as a whole.
In Los Cabos, Mexico, community participation in public space design is a relatively new concept. Famous for it’s warm weather, sandy beaches, and 4-star golf courses, “Cabo” is one of the country’s top tourist destinations. Traditionally based on fishing, the southern tip of Baja California Sur’s economy now thrives on the tourist dollars that flow in waves from mostly Canadian and American “snow-birds”. Luxurious resorts dot the coastline in between Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, and development is increasing exponentially. Unfortunately these gigantic hotels and exuberant getaways seem to take precedent over local development projects, and the hearts of both cities have become abandoned and their public spaces left in states of depreciation.
El instituto municipal de planeación (IMPLAN) has partnered with Sustainable Cities International and began a pilot project that considers participatory planning as a tool for public space re-design. SCI intern Daniel Ross developed, and implemented a community engagement process for the restoration of an urban park located on the border between the communities Pablo L. Martínez and Ampliación Guaymitas. The engagement initiatives began with a qualitative diagnostic investigation of the community, introductory meetings with park neighbours, community leaders, and different municipal stakeholders. The following phases involved facilitating formal dialogue, group visioning, community asset mapping, and developing a community vision. Daniel worked closely with members of the community from the project’s inception to the end of the internship on discussing common needs and visions, as well as to collaborate in responding to the community’s pertinent concerns.
I. Make a presence in the community through frequent visits and informal interviews (establish a relationship based on trust)
II. Identify and establish working relationships with local stakeholders
III. Format and distribute surveys of space use and perception
IV. Implement qualitative observations; behaviour mapping and entrance tracking
V. Organize and promote community participation (posters, flyers, social media and word of mouth)
VI. Organize the community meetings, workshops, and mapping activities
VII. Implement and lead the meetings, workshops and mapping activities in the community
VIII. Interpret and analyze the findings and results
IX. Use the findings and results to influence the technical architectural design and concepts
X. Maintain presence in the community with updates and a final event to present the final design and to celebrate the successes of the participatory process
The initial stages of the process consisted of qualitative and quantitative research in the community of study through the use of informal interviews, behaviour mapping and entrance tracking within the park itself, stakeholder meetings, and finally surveying. Interviews with interested community members laid a solid foundation for a relationship based on trust and mutual understanding, and also was an opportunity to learn about community values and dynamics.
The first workshops held in the park were values-based, community-asset mapping activities. Instead of directly focusing on problems and necessities, concentrating on positive areas and characteristics of the community fosters the creation of a newfound community identity.
The second round of workshops held in the public space were vision mapping activities. Residents were asked to think spatially about the locations of the physical equipment, conserving the assets and the nature of the space. Questions such as “What do you envision as the identity of the park? As a public space or a vital public destination?’ helped guide the workshops.
The ideas, suggestions, and values of the communities Ampliación Guaymitas and Pablo L. Martínez have helped influence the first architectural plans for the new public space.
Citizen Participation and Interiority
Often times the interior aspects of development, such as cultural understandings, values and social relationships are not only as important as the material needs, but also supportive of stabilizing physical interventions in the long term. For example when the neighbours of public spaces are involved in their design, they become intrinsically linked to these spaces and take ownership of them, preventing the all-too common slip into states of abandonment. When local residents in Pablo L. Martínez and Ampliación Guaymitas participated in the asset-mapping and community visioning workshops, they expressed their thoughts, memories, emotions and values towards the future of their community and in doing so contributed towards the future design of the neighbourhood.
All humans possess “agency”, or relative identity, as well as “communion”, insofar as we all belong to a larger context, much like as citizens we all belong to a community. We all have exteriority or physicality as well as interiority, or thoughts, feelings and perceptions. Living in communities, each individual interacts with the greater community whole through “feedback” mechanisms, as interconnected pieces of a great puzzle. In the context of community planning, proper design cannot be attained without the participation of the very people who make up the community. It is fundamental to include aspects of interiority when planning sustainable communities.
Participatory initiatives have the potential to integrate both the exterior needs and interior needs of a particular community. The engagement process that began in Los Cabos in July, 2012 is a primary witness to the power of incorporating interiority in the community planning process through the use of asset-mapping, community visioning, and cross-community events. The result was a striking demonstration of community members mobilizing through shared learning, the expression of perceptions and beliefs, and the appropriation of once degraded and abandoned public spaces.