“But do you really?” Lessons from a community workshop or how not to run a participatory design session

I recently attended a potentially creative masterplan co-production workshop for the residents of an area very close to where I currently live.  According to a local Councillor, this was a great way for residents to be fully involved in the masterplanning process.  Rather than developing a plan and asking people for their opinions, it was a chance to plan together with those most affected by local decisions.

As I work with Housing Associations, Councils and other organisations, helping them to develop effective, inclusive and engaging ways of working with communities, I am a bit of a harsh critic of community engagement and, god forbid, consultation.  But I was genuinely disappointed to see that no matter what clever, creative approach you take, if you fundamentally feel that you know better than the people you are talking to, it’s just the same old paternalistic approach to consultation and in no way can it be seen to be “planning together”.

The first thing that struck me was the table facilitators, who appeared to be aspiring architects and landscape designers, were doing all the “creation”.  The residents looked on powerlessly and in some cases, longingly, as the facilitators used the plasticine, pipe cleaners and strange green stuff that worked quite well as shrubbery, to “recreate” what the residents were saying.  One lady sat playing with some plasticine, making trees, while she half listened to the facilitator, obviously desperate to contribute in model form if not in words.

The second thing to strike me were some of the conversations between facilitators and residents.  I captured this particular conversation as close to word for word as I could as it so perfectly demonstrates the issue at hand.

One of the groups had fallen quiet, having had little in terms of prompting to elicit ideas or thoughts.  The facilitator proceeded to create a series of buildings in block form with central courtyards and placed them on the map over drawings of existing blocks.  The residents were asked:

“What do you think?”

What followed was priceless as an example of how not to work with residents to co-create a masterplan, and terrible to see play out.

Facilitator/planner: “What do you think to these blocks with courtyards.”

Resident: “That takes away the green spaces.  We like the green spaces.  They are why many of us live here.  It makes it a nice place to live.”

Facilitator/planner: “But do you though.  Do you actually use them?”

Resident: “Yes, that’s why I just said we like them.”

Facilitator/planner: “But I don’t think you do.  If you had closed in courtyards, you could see what was public and what was private space.  Courtyards would be much better.”

2nd Resident: “But we do like the green spaces.  The kids play on them.”

Facilitator/planner: “But with closed in spaces each one could be for the residents who live around them.  Then you could have streets that make it clearer who all the areas are for.”

Both residents look at one another and shrug.

This conversation could have gone so many different ways, but it’s likely that any alternative dialogue would have been preferable to what actually took place.  Just saying “thanks for telling me” would have been preferable.  But the subtext of this particular conversation is so telling:

Facilitator/planner: “What do you think to these blocks with courtyards.”

Resident: “That takes away the green spaces.  We like the green spaces.  They are why many of us live here.  It makes it a nice place to live.”

Facilitator/planner: “Ah but I know better than you.  Courtyards are better.”

Resident: “You are not listening to me.”

Facilitator/planner: “No, because you know nothing about architecture and I know courtyards would be much better.”

2nd Resident: “You’re not listening to me either.”

Facilitator/planner: “No, because I know better than you.  Just listen to what I’m telling you.”

My point isn’t that planning and design professionals shouldn’t claim to know more about how things might work than residents (and one should not forget that residents could also be such professionals).  The knowledge they have is vital for the development of good places that work for the people that live in them.  But the job of the professional is not to dismiss the thoughts, feeling or opinions of people who live in the place they are re-designing.  It is to make sure that those people, those residents and communities who have made that place crudely represented in cardboard on a pub table, are informed enough to make decisions that work for them.  They need to understand WHY courtyards might be better, whether there is a compromise, alternative approaches, what the impacts of leaving green spaces are.   They need to be treated as equals and involved in the whole conversation.

At the very least they need to be listened to with respect and not told they are wrong.

There are many good examples of how to take a participatory design approach which really includes residents and communities in the planning process.  Two organisations doing great work in this respect are The People’s Empowerment Alliance for Custom House (PEACH), a Big Local area in London and The Glass-House, a community-led design organisation who are “dedicated to connecting people with the design of their places, and connecting design with people.”

PEACH have developed a radical approach to working with architects, training them in community organising methods while they in turn share their skills with community organisers, who are paid the same rate as the architects.  Those in both roles learn to value the other and develop a broader set of skills with enormous value for regeneration projects.

The Glass-House have developed an “Empowering Design Practices” programme where groups of community members and management explore redeveloped buildings and are introduced to community engagement principles along with the basics of architectural drawing and model making.

These are excellent examples of multi-disciplinary approaches to planning and design.  But at their heart, and what is missing from so many “consultation” approaches, however creative they may seem, is the fundamental notion that everyone’s opinion is valid and of value.

Until we grasp that basic fact, people will be eternally wary of, and quite understandably dismissive of, attempts to engage them in the planning and design of their neighbourhoods.