Participation Lab: Empowerment in Progress

“[W]hether you are a proponent of Ecological Urbanism, or New Urbanism, or XYZ Urbanism, it is necessary to embrace an inclusive and participatory model of urbanism if we are to create more just cities.” Victor Negrete, the Participation Lab

Inspired by the stirring cases they explored in Michael Hooper’s “Participation in Planning and Development” seminar, students in the course were eager to undertake a participatory planning process for their final class project. They dubbed themselves the Participation Lab, and under the guidance of Loeb Fellow and curator Andres Lepik and Professor Hooper, they have designed a stellar exhibition, “Participation: Empowerment in Practice.” On view through May 16 in the Loeb Design Library, the exhibition shines a light on a diverse range of participatory planning projects around the world, as well as on the library’s extraordinary resources to support this practice.

At a launch event on April 19, 2012, Professor Hooper observed that community engagement in the design, management, and use of public spaces is a cross-cutting theme within the GSD. He noted that the community participation is becoming more commonplace as the design process is increasingly democratized at all levels of planning. Andres Lepik introduced the panel, representing three of the projects on display: Shari Hersh of the Philadelphia Mural Project, Ofer Lerner of Abu Talul in Israel, and Anna Heringer, for Desi in Bangladesh.

Shari Hersh described how exchanging illegal graffiti for murals created by community residents gave voice to a community marginalized because of poverty, race, culture, and behavioral health issues. Taking control of artistic vision and decisions and producing work with artistic value had profound social and personal impacts for the participants. It also had the unexpected effects of de-stigmatizing conditions like homelessness and increasing access to services.

Ofer Lerner worked with informal Bedouin communities in the Negev Desert, motivated by the awareness that they are the most disadvantaged members of Israeli society. In the process of drafting planning principles and designing a planning process that arose from the needs and mores of the community, connections were built among a disassociated group of extended families, enabling them to identify shared objectives and overcome conflicts.

Informal conversations in a Bangladeshi tea shop were critical for building vital relationships and solving practical problems during Anna Heringer ‘s two projects in the rural community. The first was a top-down initiative that had to overcome skepticism and build trust in order to use an age-old but discredited building material, compacted mud. The second project, a school, was able to capitalize on the confidence generated by the earlier success, and as a result it was a more organic process, “like a sculpture,” says Anna. The projects are now held up as models for contemporary living.

“When people ask what are the benefits of participation, I am embarrassed,” asserted Lerner. “A planning process without participation is not ethical.”

Images courtesy of Elizabeth Macwillie


Fellowship Year: 2012
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