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Citizen Participation & Citizen Engagement, the construction of a dialogue in the Urban Environment

24 July 2017

Right of the bat; “Citizen participation or engagement” is not an event, we’re not talking about a meeting, a public forum, not a public hearing, nor a period for the public to comment on an existing plan; it is a process, a citizen participation process.
The current status-quo between the local government and its citizens is no longer one where inhabitants “play a vital role in the development of city policy”, that’s old news, an outdated approach. We have effectively entered in a dynamic where everything is constructed around the end-user, in this case the citizens.
In some places, what passes for citizen engagement are public meetings and public-comment periods, physical or online, and these clumsy attempts at citizen engagement only generate apathy, antagonism, and cynicism on behalf of the neighbours. The policy makers are not really interested in being told what to do. This is why sometimes even good ideas are met with scepticism and rejection. And in given situations politicians or civil servants genuinely don’t think it’s necessary to include the citizens.

An easy example, an urban area with a graffiti ridden area, the “participatory approach would be” fist ask citizens if they agree with the municipality in that this area needs to be cleaned, and a second follow-up question, asking citizens if they would prefer to see it cleaned and painted plainly, or cleaned and have an artiste paint a mural.
The way citizen participation works right now, at least in Murcia, and which we saw clearly in the urban revitalisation project “urban DNA” carried out in the Santa Eulalia neighbourhood, is that you engage in meaningful conversation with the neighbours, they are the ones that tell you what their day to day problems are, let’s get back to the same example, the graffiti ridden area.

It is the citizens that signal the problems, the problems are mapped, mixed discussion groups are formed supported by municipal experts, the neighbours try to find solutions to the problems they have encountered, which in this case could very well be the same cleaning process, which is basic. But what to do with the cleaned area, just paint it plainly? have an artist paint something “nice”? the neighbours might want to open a contest for youth to submit their proposals? or they might want to divide it into different spaces and let local artists fill those spaces with their work?
There are so many opinions and options, that providing a fixed set of answers to common problems, obstructing the creative process, it is the primary enemy of creativity and of free expression, and this directly inhibits citizen participation, commitment and for the neighbours to identify with the solution, because the solution is not “theirs”. Subsequently, through this new approach, interest, engagement and involvement during the process, the implementation and the post-assessment are much higher.

Santa Eulalia
The first step was understanding what we are already doing in a better, more precise, way, and identifying what elements of the method and types of engagement contributed most to the desired results and involvement, leading to a new approach to citizen participation.
The outcomes of citizen participation are highly context specific and sensitive to how “closely” the citizens feel the problems relate to them, and their willingness to engage. Effective participation is also affected by social, political, economic, environmental, cultural, geographic and other factors, such as age and gender dynamics. Leading to a dynamic model of Roadmaps for citizen participation, that share the same principles, instruments that are not context-specific and allow adapting citizen participation goals to specific outcomes, creating valuable opportunities for direct input.

Author: 

A well-executed citizen participation plan gives us a) the possibility to assess problems beyond the limited scope of the municipality view, b) it generates direct and creative input from local stakeholders, neighbours, c) creates a sense of involvement and belonging, strengthening the identity and building community, d) generates additional value in the perception of executed plans, citizens will care more about the process, outcome and maintaining the outcome if they have been involved directly.

In the Urban DNA project we strongly focussed on a number of actions to directly involve the citizens in the process, which develops through three phases:
1. The identification phase, in which the field work is carried out, the diagnosis of the territory and “critical problem” identification.
2. The agitation phase which focuses on the implementation of multiple actions in a limited timeframe,
3. And the projection phase, which is focused on ensuring the sustainability of the actions through the shared management of spaces.
Whilst using the tools at our disposal throughout the phases, some of which I shall briefly highlight:

We assessed and studied the neighbourhood through a:
1. Urban alert system, system which uses demographic, socio-economic and residential vulnerability indexes, which result in the "urban vulnerability index”
2. Mapping of municipal facilities and infrastructures, identifying “hot zones” where it is necessary to intervene, and what type of information we need to collect from each area.
3. Definition of the project promoter and promotion group, responsible for boosting the participatory process throughout its phases and posterior consolidation of the project.
4. continuous monitoring and evaluation of the process  and monitoring of online social networks

Engaged citizens directly in the process through:
1. Urban mapping through specifically targeted work-groups (children, families, elderly citizens, etc.)
2. Engaging stakeholder groups; associations, interest groups, sub-communities, etc.
3. Online citizen participation through a platform of webpage and blog enabling neighbours to give their proposals, ideas and opinions online, by selecting areas, and indicating the most pressing problems.
4. Citizen engagement through social media, a wide array of communication channels, so neighbours are able to signal their real needs for their neighbourhood, easily and swiftly.
5. Direct contact and input from all citizens interested in the process in a physical information and participation stand, as well as “Agora”, topic based forums for discussion and debate

6. Citizen engagement games like “Urban City Players” where neighbours get to design parts of the urban environment, and to open their minds as to what can be accomplished

Emphasising specific approaches to urban revitalisation:
1. Urban Acupuncture:  proposing interventions that slightly modify the elements that affect daily life. Gentle interventions that constitute real improvements
2. Appreciation of existing resources and assigning value to specific and unique aspects of the neighbourhood.
3. Engaging citizens in cooperation and contribution projects; beautify and embellish the neighbourhood, a clear example being the full scale painting of certain areas


The case of our participation processes regarding transport and mobility are dissimilar as the scale is completely different, and a different approach was chosen.

Dialogue through transparency and connectivity
The dialogue carried out with citizens should be significant and based on a real interest on behalf of the politicians involved, and should not be met with scepticism or be looked down upon by civil servants, and the goal is not just to know what people think about a particular issue, it is to have the people signal their problems and needs, whilst offering advice and keeping reality in check.
The ultimate goal is for the citizen to become an active participant in the development of the local community, and for it to be an auto-sustained community, acknowledging on the one the right for citizens to participate in decisions that affect the neighbourhood they reside in, but also recognising the fact no-one will know what public services affect them most on a daily bases than they do. Leading to an interactive community where information and citizen participation “flows” and no specific process is needed (after the guided pilot). All part of a process and dialogue where, as mentioned before, the technical knowledge and expertise is provided by the civil servants and municipal technicians, complementing the insights and views the citizens offer. Neighbours should be able to self-manage proposals by turning to their municipality for technical expertise.

Author: 

Santa Eulalia was a pilot project of which the outcome turned out to be even better than previously projected. A pilot for other neighbourhoods where the municipality will intervene,  but also a pilot for the neighbours, that now know how improve their surroundings collectively, by participating actively in their community.
A basic pillar of the process which was proven again and again to be vital for the completion and results we obtained is that, when the municipal government decides to carry out this dialogue with its citizens, the roles must be clarified, no false expectations should be generated, different and divergent opinions should be respected, and a sense of community and joined effort needs to be created. Before the citizen participation process and the dialogue therein starts, the previous information has to be gathered already, and the process should be outlined to the evaluation and assessment phase.

The true keys to a successful Citizen Participation and Citizen Engagement being the political willingness for it to be so, to address issues that directly affect the community or neighbourhood the process is being carried out in, to eliminate all barriers to participation and for the results to be tangible, visible and physical.

Kasper van Hout

Municipality of Murcia