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Participatory Practices

Participatory practices are not so easy to identify or define. This stems from the inability of standard lenses to encapsulate, recognise and legitimise the entire process of citizen involvement and the active engagement of practitioners in a systematic manner.

One urbanist whose writings have been an important influence in participatory practices is Jane Jacobs. She refused to accept that cities were just physical spaces that were filled by people and had to be managed. She saw neighbourhoods as made up of human energy and agency that actively worked with its immediate environment to produce a liveable space. One that was made up primarily by the people who inhabit it.

Urbanist Jane Jacobs, and a template for a density-diversity map of Mumbai. Illustration by Hugh Ebdy

Anyone who works closely with communities knows that a special ecology of knowledge develops around people the more they engage with their immediate environment. This ecology of local knowledge cannot be manufactured from the top. It cannot also be ensured by “making” citizens. The ecology emerges the moment we recognize that it exists. If we look around us carefully, we can see that it exists in abundance but is rarely incorporated into the process of “data-mining” that remains market-speak and corporate glib-talk.

Pictures from a participatory workshop conducted by urbz in Bareilly Compound, Dharavi

A participatory workshop conducted by urbanista in Bremen, Germany

The production of knowledge through participatory practice and, more particularly the role of “information systems” that permits the gathering, sharing, production diffusion of knowledge, is one of the main inspirations for the urban typhoon workshops and its commitment to participation.

In terms of a history of practice, Participatory Action Research (PAR) is an established research methodology, which is usually traced back to the academic activism of Kurt Lewin in the 1940s. Lewin was interested in improving the impact of social projects on minorities in the US. In the 1970s and 1980s it was revived by Latin American and Asian intellectuals and academics as a radical praxis aimed at challenging existing power relationships in rural development projects.

The core principle of PAR is that the researcher is not merely an observer but an active participant (or even an initiator) of the project or process that s/he documents. Likewise, the community studied is not passive but rather actively involved in the research. The transformative potential of the research is not only acknowledged but also actively pursued. This approach represents a radical departure from traditional academic research methodology that emphasises the importance of keeping a distance from the field, even as one gets immersed in it in order to retain an objective view.

Pictures from a participatory workshop in Chandigarh conducted by urbz

A participatory workshop conducted by urbanista in Hamburg, Germany

The quality of the research depends on the researcher’s commitment, creativity and imagination. The researcher does not merely acknowledge the way in which his or her presence affects the phenomenon or group observed, but also takes a political stance and active role.

Proponents of PAR hold the view that knowledge is embedded in situations, and people who are immersed in them are prime experts of these situations. The researcher must learn from them in the same way he or she would learn from professors at the university. One of the main challenges faced by PAR researchers are open communication channels that allow knowledge to flow both ways and to be broadcasted to a larger audience.

Today, citizen participation is being increasingly recognised and acknowledged in communities as an important element of daily life. This is evident from the many mandates made by local governments towards greater civic involvement in the urban development process.

Participation encapsulates existing energies within communities, local bodies, institutions and residents that generate data, information, ideas, strategies, and visions.

Local participatory and inclusive data collection at a neighbourhood level has always been used by housing activists in many parts of the world – including India. However rather than producing spatial audits, the process of producing qualitative data needs to involve design, non-physical mapping that pays attention to activities and issues of livelihood, everyday civic concerns from water to solid-waste management – all of which need localised production of knowledge as the fundamental element for action.

Participatory planning has proven to be a dynamic and inclusive urban planning methodology with the added potential to cut across socio-economic, gender and age divides. The collective intelligence of communities has time and again proven to be robust and resilient and should be a cornerstone of urban planning practices.

Hamari Sadak’ participatory project by urbz

The Entekochi urban design competition is participatory in nature as it seeks to involve local stakeholders at every stage. The design brief has been derived in consultation with stakeholders, from the local government, parastatal agencies and special purpose vehicles (SPV), educational institutes, residents welfare associations, street vendors association and professionals and practitioners based in Kochi. Features like maptionnaire allow local residents to add more layers of information regarding the site. Finally the Jury that chooses the winning designs will also comprise local residents.

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