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The Power of "Play-off and Playground" in Urban Planning

Talk at the National Museum of Architecture, Helsinki, Finland by Pedro Aibéo & Mark Linder (Architectural Democracy), 16.09.2023


In this short essay, we traverse the journey of participatory urban planning from its nascent stages in the early 20th century, with a highlight on its true nascent period, the 1970s, to its current emphasis on equity and empowerment. Despite substantial progress, traditional methods of stakeholder engagement often fail to bridge the gap between community expectations and final implementations and, furthermore, between what citizens want and what they do not know what they want or need. To discuss this, the article introduces and advocates for a dual approach— "Play-off and Playground." This model synergizes the competitive innovation seen in architectural competitions (Play-off) with the participatory, real-world testing environments (Playground). A "Play-off and Playground" approach would seek to create dynamic, resilient, experimental, and inclusive communities by uniting global expertise with local sensibilities.

Historical overlook:

The 1960s and 70s witnessed the emergence of participatory urban planning processes. It is vital to revise the past in order to contemplate the future of urban planning.

  • Early 20th Century: Early Seeds of Participation

While not explicitly labelled as "participatory urban planning," there were instances of community engagement in urban development decisions during the early 20th century. For example, Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement (1898) emphasised the importance of community involvement in designing self-contained, planned communities. Ebenezer Howard's famous 1898 publication “To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform” changed the way we debated around urban planning.

  • 1940s - 1950s: Advocacy for Community Input

During this period, we witnessed the contestation of all-mighty top down planners such as Robert Moses against comprehensive reasoning laid out by non experts such as Jane Jacobs, who emphasised the value of community input in urban development. Jacobs' book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961) critiqued modernist urban planning and advocated for mixed-use neighbourhoods that fostered social interaction and collaboration.

  • 1960s - 1970s: The Rise of Participatory Planning

The 1960s and 1970s saw a more formalised shift toward participatory urban planning. The idea of involving citizens in decisions that affect their communities gained traction, often in response to top-down planning approaches that led to negative outcomes. Advocacy for social justice, civil rights, and environmental concerns also contributed to the emergence of participatory strategies. An example is the Community Action Program (CAP) from the United States federal government as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's "War on Poverty." The CAP aimed to empower low-income communities by involving them directly in the planning and implementation of anti-poverty programs. It encouraged residents to identify their own needs and collaborate with public and private organisations to develop solutions.

  • 1970s - 1980s: Institutionalisation and Policy Shifts

During this period, participatory urban planning strategies began to be incorporated into official policies and planning frameworks. Planners started experimenting with methods such as community workshops, public hearings, and citizen advisory boards to involve residents in decision-making processes. For example: The "Bryant Park Restoration" project in New York City (1980s) involved extensive community engagement to transform a crime-ridden park into a vibrant public space. Local residents, business owners, and various stakeholders were consulted to shape the park's redesign. But more broadly, the long awaited lay person’s feedback seems to be starting to bear fruits. For example, it was at this time that we saw the rise of pedestrianised environments (despite the 1970s having been the golden age of the suburbs and the highways and despite the oil energy crisis). Not solely at the street level, but with shopping malls, airports, vacation resorts, convention centres and networks of tunnels and/or skyways (eg. the tunnel of Houston or the skyway of Minneapolis) which reimagined environments. The Japanese optimised the pedestrian based approach by building the malls by and on top of railway stations, decreasing the car dependency criticism attached to the malls which is now a standard adopted approach in Helsinki, witnessed with the new malls of Tripla and Redi.

(It is also the 1970s that an explosion of environmental protection associations and governement agencies were founded, eg. Greenpeace or the EPA.)

  • 1990s and 2002: Technological Advances and Digital Engagement;

The rise of information technology allowed for more efficient and accessible methods of participation. Online platforms, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and digital mapping tools provided opportunities for citizens to contribute their ideas and feedback remotely.

For Example, the Participatory GIS project of "Map Kibera" initiative in Nairobi, Kenya, empowered residents of informal settlements to map their own neighbourhoods using GPS devices and open-source software. This enabled residents to visualise their living conditions and advocate for improved infrastructure and services. Or the "High Line" project in New York City which involved public input through design workshops and an interactive website. The adaptive reuse of an old elevated railway into a linear park incorporated community ideas, leading to a unique urban space.

"Aseem Inam (2014) calls this characteristic of the High Line’s development “radical humanism”—“how human beings are capable of transforming cities through tremendous effort, creativity, and perseverance.

(from the book "Deconstructing The High Line" by Danya Sherman)

  • 2010s and 2020 - Present: Democratisation of Data and Co-Creation

In recent years, participatory urban planning has evolved to prioritise equity and empowerment. Planners recognize the importance of involving marginalised and underrepresented communities, leading to initiatives such as community-led design projects, participatory budgeting, and inclusive engagement methods. The "Porto Maravilha" revitalization project in Rio de Janeiro for example, in Brazil, prioritised equitable participation. It used community meetings, online platforms, and cultural events to involve residents in decisions about infrastructure upgrades and urban development in neglected areas. Another example closer to home, is the "Helsinki Region Infoshare" platform, which provides open data and tools for citizens and developers to create applications that improve urban life. This platform enables data-driven participation and encourages residents to contribute to the city's development.

So what next? What will be told about the 2020s?

The strategies and methods evolved, with an increasing emphasis on inclusivity, equity, and the integration of technology to facilitate meaningful community engagement. However, worldwide, we have not seen a normalisation of such processes. The top down decision making process endures, and public participation is often applied for political green washing purposes. While traditional methods of engaging stakeholders have had their merits, it is clear from the non wide dissemination of public participation processes that a further approach is needed, one that makes it more effective and meaningful balancing the competitive innovation with the collaborative exploration. We need both the ”Play-off” and the “Playground" to come closer together.

Let’s start with the "Play-off", reminiscent of architectural competitions. This approach has been integral in cities worldwide, sparking innovative solutions from the best minds in the field. For instance, the Eiffel Tower, New York’s Central Park (a competition won by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1858) or the 1970s, Centre Pompidou. Play-offs create a platform where diverse ideas combat in a fierce but friendly environment, pushing the envelope of creativity and raising the status of the architect. However there are many problems with competitions: the evaluation of architecture is highly subjective and working on competitions is very wasteful. As an example of two recent open architectural competitions, The Bauhaus Museum for Dessau and the Guggenheim Museum for Helsinki (which was never built), both combined had 2546 entries. If all of these 2546 offices worked on these submissions for only 10 days, with two people, each 8 hours per day, it makes a total of 407360 work hours. To put this in perspective, on average, a person does 2080 working hours a year. So we are talking about having 196 years of work, for the design of two buildings (actually one!). So if we are talking about sustainable construction of buildings we must account for the energy investment from the competitions. If we then do this by limiting it to closed competitions, we are then losing the best disruptive ideas, discriminating against smaller offices (the majority of practices).

On the other hand, the "Playground" speaks to the Skinnerian approach, where instead of grand master plans being instantly rolled out, smaller interventions are executed. These 'playgrounds' are spaces where people interact, learn, adapt, and offer feedback in real-time. One could also call it Seed Planning (cf. Richard Sennett’s “The Open City”), meaning, do not plan everything down to the last screw but leave room for the users to appropriate the space,plan it and build further solutions on top of that created platform. The architect plants the seed for it to grow gradually according to the needs of the time.

For this the digitization of the built environment plays a large role. The interaction with the public must be engaging and fun from the planning phase all the way down to the life-cycle(s) of the building. Helsinki's "Block by Block" initiative, in which residents redesign their public spaces using Minecraft, is a testament to this method on the planning stage, or even more recently, Architectural Democracy’s “Urban Dots” where kids and adults design a city with legos as a game. In the physical realm, we have Alejandro Aravena: Low-Cost housing’s Villa Verde Project where half the house remains unbuilt so the users take it further or the Gamified Cohousing’s houses, focused on renovating old buildings and building new ones gradually, with the active help of its users and residents.

Urban Dots by Architectural Democracy
Urban Dots by Architectural Democracy

Instead of finalising designs behind closed doors, the "playground" is opened for stakeholders to tweak, reimagine, and optimise. Another stellar example is Barcelona's superblocks, where neighbourhoods were transformed into pedestrian-first zones on a trial basis. The reactions of residents and businesses within these experimental blocks shaped the final execution.

Helsinki had or has a great chance to make this happen with Suvilahti, the last experimental area of Helsinki as noted by the Architect Michael Sorkin (cf. Suvilahti – Helsingin vasen  aivopuolisko, 2018)

So, why the need for a dual approach?

Firstly, while architectural competitions or "play-offs'' bring in a fresh influx of ideas from around the world, the "playgrounds" ensure these concepts are rooted in local sensibilities. It's a blend of global expertise and local resonance.

Secondly, urban planning has often been critiqued for its top-down approach, where decisions are made by a few and enforced on many. The Freudian approach, traditionally predominant, leans towards changing attitudes before behaviours. We see this in numerous surveys, workshops, and community meetings that aim for alignment. While this strategy can be effective, it sometimes suffers from becoming too theoretical or misaligned from on-ground realities. On the contrary, the "playground" or Skinnerian approach allows residents to experience changes, however minor these are, and voice their feedback. This immediate interaction often leads to designs that are more responsive and inclusive. It promotes behavioural change by engaging communities directly with tangible changes in their environment. It promotes learning.

Moreover, in an era where rapid urbanisation is coupled with technological advancements, the dynamism of "Play-off and Playground" ensures that urban planning remains agile. Cities are organic entities, continually evolving, and this approach ensures they remain future-ready.

However, implementing this isn't without challenges. Firstly, there's a need for robust feedback mechanisms in the "playground" phase to ensure voices are heard and incorporated. Secondly, while "play-offs" can bring in groundbreaking ideas, they need to be adequately funded and supported to ensure their feasibility.

Yet, the benefits outweigh the challenges. The "Play-off and Playground" approach ensures a broad spectrum of ideas are considered and that the eventual implementations are not just innovative but also in sync with community needs.

As we envision the future of urban planning, it's evident that the combined might of contests and living labs is essential. We can look at cities like Paris, New York, Helsinki, and Barcelona as beacons of this combined approach, where innovation meets pragmatism, and global meets local. To urban planners and policymakers worldwide, the message is clear: Harness the competitive spirit of the "play-off" and the experimental essence of the "playground." It’s not just about building cities; it’s about co-creating spaces where every voice, every idea, and every brick counts.

If we can apply this with confidence in key areas of the world, the next 50 years will probably tell the story of how urban planning participation rose from being an enforced political greenwashing to being the standard way for resilient and a more sustainable design of cities widely engrained in the, hopefully, multi-planetary society of the 2070s. If the 1970s created a peak in modernism, car-centred, brutalist, etc. it also created a counter movement to redefine the process. Is the 2020s such a peak in regards to urban planning participation? Will it be followed by a better process?

Pedro Aibéo & Mark Linder

Helsinki, 16.09.2023


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