- July 13, 2022
We sat down with Julie Bergeron, Project Director of Urban Planning at Lemay, to discuss citizen participation and how it can be the catalytic participatory design that turns space into place.
The places we create can not only enhance the natural and built environments around us, but also improve the lives of the people who use them and create value for the communities connecting with them. That’s why we believe in a participatory design approach, one that encourages citizen involvement in our projects from a responsible, equitable, inclusive and engaged society.
Democratic life is at the heart of our daily actions and freedoms, and public participation initiatives and processes – especially in the development of projects –is a force for good. What we do and say as a public can have a direct impact on the built environments around us. In valuing the opinion of others, we can break from past authoritative approaches to design.
What is a participatory design, and how does Lemay approach it?
Participatory design approaches engage stakeholders who are concerned or interested in a project or place within the design process itself.
For Lemay, it’s essential to recognize the power and influence participants can have in a project’s design. With different possible levels of engagement within a project – information, consultation, involvement, collaboration, empowerment – one should aim for higher levels of engagement to attain meaningful participation and help shape long-lasting and sustainable decision-making.
The journey is as important as the result. Participatory processes should foster mutual trust between a project’s developers, designers, and stakeholders, and leave sufficient room for evolution as the project moves forward. A well-constructed process has better chances of fostering social acceptability, and social acceptability fosters success.
Why is citizen participation important for urban development and design?
Places are meaningful for citizens as they embody memories, biographies and meanings; they become of collective value with time.
As Jane Jacobs writes in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, social cohesion is fostered and proliferates through social interactions. These interactions are bound by place, in cities that are made up of a social, cultural and urban fabric similar to how ecosystems function.
Jacobs was part of a grassroots movement placed importance on moving from a top down to a bottom-up approach, a movement that is at the roots of Lemay’s citizen participation practices today.
Putting people first is important and essential in Lemay’s urban design and urban planning practices because as urban planners, architects and designers, we must have a delicate, intricate and sensitive understanding of the dynamics between the public and the projects that affect their lives – what better way to understand this than by connecting with communities directly to better serve communities?
How can citizens do to integrate themselves in the design process?
They should first be made aware of their rights. There is, for example, the Montréal Charter of Rights and Responsibilities; it stipulates any citizen has the right of initiative in matter of public consultation, and that any citizen can call for a public participation process for any project that is the responsibility of the city or borough.
Citizens can also call for referendums on projects, meet with their elected officials, or take part in consultative committees, associations, and public consultation activities. We should also sensitize kids, teens, and young adults to the importance of democracy and public participation and encourage this kind of culture in generations to come.
What about designers? What is their responsibility to involve citizens in their work?
Designers can involve citizens in a co-design process, not only in decision making but also creative idea generation. Co-design has long been known to allow for more innovative and out-of-the-box solutions.
At Lemay, there’s a central question around how we can ensure we address the needs of everyone, especially underrepresented communities; how can we avoid unconscious biases? Growing calls for inclusion means we must address individuals’ needs when developing projects, ones that are influenced by social factors such as social class, ethnicity, age, status, immigration, religion, sexual orientation, disability, and so on.
Encouraging citizen participation for more inclusive built environments can better balance power dynamics.
What about Lemay’s accountability and transparency towards citizens that participate?
Lemay has developed a Public Participation Charter which presents the firm’s engagements in public participation processes. It’s where we state our commitment to faithfully communicating opinions of participants on their behalf in a transparent and impartial manner in all consultations and accountability reports. It’s a sort of social contract between all parties.
Public spaces are, after all, a key to democratic life: They allow for everyone to express themselves politically or artistically, to protest or gather, but also to meet with others and coexist despite their differences. They are the result of a complex negotiation between different users with different needs, cultures and habits.
You can read Lemay’s Public Participation Charter to learn about its purpose and its commitments.