What does participatory urban design look like?

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager
Johannesburg, 4 February 2016

As BRT infrastructure – the “Corridors of Freedom” – continues to be rolled out across Johannesburg, plans are underway for existing proximate social facilities to be supported by new developments to form neighborhood “social clusters,” which can potentially serve communities in ways that the BRT itself cannot. Critical, then, is the level of local engagement, inclusion, and ownership that these local developments build.

Following two public participation meetings in August and December 2015 for the flagship Brixton Social Cluster project, we spoke to Francis Fourie of Osmond Lange Architects and Planners, who is leading the design, on her understanding of “participation” and the methods of the participatory development that they have been used in this project.

Please describe the project concept.

The Brixton Social Cluster Urban Design hinges around the upgrading of existing social infrastructure, namely the redevelopment of public open space into parks, sports grounds, and facilities that can better serve the current and future community’s needs.

What is the place of broader participation and how was the process developed?

The Public Participation Process in Brixton was aimed at finding out exactly what facilities and spaces the community needed. The professionals and the local government departments came up with three urban designs. Each focused on various aspects that the city felt was needed in this cluster, such as housing, park space, retail, etc. The concept for the public participation was to make a “salad” of all these uses and present this to the community in order to tease out their responses to each of these uses.

Is the current process sufficient?

The Public Participation was immensely successful in terms of giving very clear direction to the project:
• better facilities aimed at the youth and students;
• a strong cultural, sports and community focus;
• a complement to the existing Recreation Center;
• a library upgrade;
• and no public housing schemes on current public open space.

How valuable is this process for larger and complex urban design projects such as this?

If an urban scheme encompasses many neighbourhoods rather than one, it is very difficult to communicate all the implications on plans in such a way that people understand the scope of the impact. But Brixton was small enough.

Secondly, participants had a clear sense of ownership. Although this means that discussions can get heated, ultimately the input is meaningful and helpful. Often where there is no sense of ownership conversations drift in socio-ideological academic realms that have little real "on the ground" value.

How has the process influenced decision-making?

Every aspect of the design was measured against clear feedback from the public participation, which helped immensely in terms of translating community design criteria into a suitable and responsive urban design.

How do you balance concerns of communities against planning intentions of local authorities?

Luckily local authorities in South Africa tend to be very responsive to the needs of citizens. The City of Johannesburg, to some extent, leads the way. The Johannesburg Development Agency during the course of 2014-15 played partner to the My Your Our City Futures, an initiative set up to research public participation tools. The outcome can be found on Youtube. The idea was that South African Public Participation involves more narrative and that we need better tools and exercises to capture, enunciate, and document these stories.

Public participation, however, depends heavily on the integrity of the professional and authorities involved. It can either be an in depth earnest search for the true wants and needs of the affected parties or it can just be a superficial rubber stamping process for an already conceived and planned project.

Photo credit: Tariq Toffa

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