How to create the ideal city? The answer lies in participatory planning

Involving the public in urban design can help administrators unlock the full potential of participatory planning
People mingle in the Piazza del Anfiteatro in Lucca, Italy | Photo: Alamy

By Caren Ohrhallinger

Caren Ohrhallinger is the managing editor of Nonconform, an architecture and participatory planning firm with offices in Germany and Austria.

06 Jun 2023

Imagine a city where stepping outside your door means stepping into your public living room. A city where you can put your deck chair in the sun and make the space your own; a city where the greenery boasts genuine biodiversity; a city where children can play in the streets without fear of being hit by a car. 


For many urban planners and designers who work in city environments, this is the dream scenario. But how do we reach this ideal? I believe that fostering dense, livable cities where communities thrive requires participation from people themselves. That’s because cities consist of more than just streets and buildings; they also have a “social fabric” that comes to life through the people who live and work there. Therefore, my work focuses on an approach called participatory urban planning, an effort that gets a lot of press but isn’t always carried out in the most effective way.  


Each urban planning project generates resistance and potential. There might be resistance to the idea of more traffic for example, whereas there is also latent potential in terms of the residents´ local expertise. In order to mitigate resistance  and capitalise on potential, city administrations and urban planners need to bring people on board the process through participatory urban planning.  


The primary spot for this in urban contexts is the public, open space. It’s in these spaces where solutions are yet to be defined.  


When we work with public administrations and real estate developers, we often notice uncertainty as to how to use participation. Participation is often limited to the provision of information to residents, and it is often done at quite late stages of a project. But in order to fulfill the full potential of participation, we must involve the public as early and as openly as possible. 


The first step is always to raise awareness, and to do so thoughtfully. When decision-makers and urban planners communicate in laypersons’ terms, we can create awareness of the broader context of an urban planning project, including reasons why certain choices are being made. The multiplicity of perspectives and needs must be made visible, including the broader context of land and resource consumption. Openness will promote trust and credibility among communities. When decision-makers communicate transparently, people can accept uncertainty and complexity, even in conflict-laden processes. We’ve found that only elusive explanations are bad explanations.  We urban planners and process facilitators are the advocates for future generations. 


We must also make sure that, in the course of identifying people’s everyday needs, we meet people in their living environment. Doing so means better built results. 


Finally, empowerment is an essential aspect of participatory urban planning. When we bring people on board to shape the future of their neighbourhoods, they feel empowered and start to act. And it takes collective action to make things happen. That’s why it’s important to offer low-threshold opportunities for involvement. That’s why it’s important to ensure there’s a low barrier to entry for participating in shaping one’s public space. We must support low-threshold initiatives like community gardens, co-housing and temporary use of urban wastelands, because these are the identity-creating seeds of neighbourhood developments. 


It is up to us decision-makers, officials and planners to facilitate future-proof solutions and to invite those who want to participate and co-create to come aboard as allies. 


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