Taking into account the failure of traditional urban policies to meet the needs of urban dwellers, more and more small-scale projects involving community design processes emerge.

Since 2012, the Humara Bachpan campaign in India has organised more than 325 child clubs aimed at walking up and down neighbourhoods with young dwellers. Children usually map underused areas that could serve as playgrounds, dumps that should disappear, spaces lacking of street lighting or of clean water access. Eventually, the maps are shared with municipal authorities, urban planners and policy makers. Most importantly, children who beforehand believed it was the normal course of things to be chased away from public spaces, now know they have rights.

Shifting perspectives: an equal-to-equal relationship between researchers and urban-dwellers

In Vietnam for example, the practice is also starting to spread. Last May, we met with a group of students from Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) carrying on a Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) in Phu Xuan Commune, District of Nha Be, Ho Chi Minh City.

location of site

location of site © anordinarycity, 2015

CBPR is a partnership approach that associates a research team with a community, composed of different groups of diverse backgrounds and concerns yet sharing a common interest in its good overall development. The involvement of the residents in the decision making process also enables researchers to increase the knowledge and understanding of phenomena to further take them into account when intervening on the improvement of a community’s quality of life.

In the field of urban planning, it is a growing trend for students, researchers and private groups to involve the people along in the studying and solving of their issues through public space design. It seems to translate a shift in the perception of the place of the planner (and the architect) in the designing of a good urban environment, especially when it comes to poorer communities.

Redefining the very process of designing the city, the CBPR is also a way to oppose the perspective that researchers are superiors to those studied – by extension, that architects are superiors to urban-dwellers – claim SUTD students.

Over the past decades, Phu Xuan, a commune of 16,000 souls, underwent one of the highest rates of urbanisation in Nha Be. Besides an important pressure on land, several issues outburst such as inadequate amenities, a lack of waste management system or a shortage of housing.

Consequently, the research team found in Phu Xuan a welcoming community on the one hand, and local authorities looking for alternative ways to redevelop the land, though not officially backing the project, on the other hand.

Urbanisation of Nha Be district between 2002 and 2015.

Urbanisation of Nha Be district between 2002 and 2015 © anordinarycity, 2015

Understanding the patterns of neighbourliness

The project was carried out in partnership with HCM University of Technology, HCM University of Transport and Van Lang University as an experiment to (re)activate public spaces on a small-scale basis. During 9 months, the students worked on setting up tools that would best seize the identity of the place and the aspirations of the people. In exchange, their aim was to let the residents benefit from their knowledge in architecture, urban planning, civil and digital engineering.

They organised the project into three phases. During the first « Community » phase, students had an overview of the various approaches existing to address community issues. They then collected data and interviewed the residents before presenting them their findings in a first meeting. It was an opportunity for students to hear individual stories and confront their first proposals to the locals’ lives.

In a second phase of « Co-creation », the team re-examined the data collected and reframed the issues. They also designed a specific and varied data collection method that would not only focus on visual elements, but also exploit our other physical senses – sounds and videos were recorded for example. For students, it was a tremendous opportunity to understand the patterns of social gathering spaces, social connections and the components of « neighbourliness ».

Eventually in a third stage « Continuity », the students built a platform that would bring together and empower the community to envision and pursue self-sustaining ideas.

They set up an exhibition to allow the community to add onto the research and see their neighbourhood in a new light. For example, an interactive map proposed a soundscape of the area, allowing residents to rethink about the sensorial identity of their place; a postcard-wall enabled participants to pen down their dreams and hopes; and paintings offered a view of how children imagine the future of Phu Xuan.

The exhibition aimed at enabling the residents to leave their mark and voice their concerns: Sharlene, a Singaporean student, explained they wanted « people (to) become the researchers of their own community, and through the process, build their confidence, capacity and network as community designers ».

Forming the kids to citizenship

Interestingly, noted the students, the main feedback they got showed that the residents’ major concern was about the children. As they represent the future of their families and communities, parents and older residents were more sensitive to propositions that concerned the improvement of their kids’ daily life than theirs.

In fact, kids represented significant stakeholders in the project: « I realised that the children interviewed gave more constructive feedback aside from the usual ‘This is good’ or ‘I like this’ that a few of the older residents gave » said one of the Singaporean students. Rather, they expressed clear ideas of what they wanted – playground areas – and how they did – sheltered from the sun with green spaces.

Like in Indian cities, children who are often neglected, appear to be critical actors in the design process. More generally, it brings about the question of how do kids learn, educate themselves, get the tools from their urban environment to become citizens?

In Phu Xuan, kids were involved during the whole process of designing the new community public space

In Phu Xuan, kids were involved during the whole process of designing the new community public space © anordinarycity, 2015

“Design is not about the product, but the people and the process”

When I met the students, they were back in Saigon for seven days of workshop to select a site and design the utilities that would be proposed to the residents. As we discussed their initiative through, they shared with me on some of their setbacks, which I believe are engaging for anyone working on the urban design scene.

They regretted that site visits and interviews with the locals were insufficient to formulate more sustainable solutions for the entire community. While some students were involved in this project for the second year, they understood how deeply rooted locally any urban development project should be. As future architects, engineers or urban planners, they said they realised that « design is not about the product but the people and the process ».

Singaporean students are back in HCMC to discuss with their Saigonese comrades and the residents about the specific features of the future public space

Singaporean students are back in HCMC to discuss with their Saigonese comrades and the residents about the specific features of the future public space © anordinarycity, 2015

Moreover, they noted that the success of the process not only depends on their adaptation to the community’s needs, but also on the residents’ understanding that their involvement is necessary to make places work. Most of the time, and especially in Vietnam (or Morocco), citizens follow a strict top-down decision making process and do not believe they can have a right to speak and propose improvements for their environment – professionals and experts unilaterally choose for the users.

In Phu Xuan, as much as the project initiated a vision-shift, it reminded that better place design is a continuing process – it takes time and a regular involvement of all parts. In cities of the global South, demographic pressure coupled with speculation often restrain the production of qualitative and harmonious urban spaces, designed for the residents (the copy-pasting of international prefab models usually forgets to adapt to local contexts).

However, small scale initiatives make it more possible: when face-to-face meetings are regular between expert teams and community members, when trustful (individual and collective) relationships are created and sustained over time to support the locals’ empowerment and take over of their urban environment, positive change is possible – and at no great expense.

Teaching opportunities that should not be missed

This experience can be inspiring for future planners. It shows that planning cities and building homes is most and foremost about understanding the essence of places, the needs and the aspirations of their residents, and finding ways to support them rather than impose one’s expertise. Co-design workshops or other forms of participatory experiences should be a compulsory stage in the education of our experts (whether they are engineers, architects, town planners or else) so that they have the tools to better build our cities – with the people and for the people!

For more information about the Phu Xuan project, click here.

• July, 20th 2015 •