Participatory Planning— episode 1

Re-imagine Catwalks playbook: A how-to-guide for Calgary communities seeking to transform shortcuts, catwalks, mazes and mews- Sustainable Calgary- 2019 — Photo credits: Sustainable Calgary’s pilot project #ReimagineCatwalks in Marlborough, Calgary

Participatory planning happens at the confluence of two types of knowledge; citizen knowledge and expert knowledge. It seeks to specifically engage the voices of groups and individuals who are more likely to experience well-being inequities in their built environment and are often more prone to be dismissed in the process and the outcome of planning.

Participatory planning should seek collective identification of resources and solutions. It seeks the most effective use of available resources in the solutions that can create a healthy and thriving community, by taking into account the desires and the very needs of citizens equitably and inclusively (1).

Active transportation to improve a neighborhoods health- Donovan Neighborhood, Greater Sudbury, Active neighborhoods Canada- Photo credit: TCAT

Participatory planning is grounded on a principle that focuses on the origins of well-being (1 and 2) and thus the roots of lack of well-being, rather than the surface problems that have been observed as a missing amenity or facility. Take it as an example: social connection and a sense of belonging to a community is one of the cores of a healthy, happy community , feeling connected to nature is another important factor.In an authentic participatory planning process, citizens are not engaged to merely tell experts what they want to see in their neighborhood’s park. People are part of the process to share their unique experience with ‘feeling connected as part of a community’ and how it has connected to the experience of open spaces and connection to nature in an urban setting.

Experts should understand where, when, and how citizens have such experiences in their own neighborhood ( if they have ever had !) and/or how we can create/recreate/expand/improve/make accessible the experience in their own neighborhood. Participatory planning seeks to identify the tangible assets (such as parks, walkways, lane-ways, buildings’ facades, street escapes, local stores, etc.) and intangible resources (such as a strong social network and community groups, strong sense of belonging to the community, social services, cultural diversity, shared stories, local techniques and local knowledge, etc.) that the solution should tap on to make the space, program, services, experiences and whatever else the subject of planning is, respond to the very local context efficiently and inclusively. Once we engage people as we are designing with them their healthy thriving equitable neighborhoods, we should keep this principle at the center of our outreach and engagement approach.

One main implication of this principle is that mapping community assets, either tangible or intangible; either actualized or potential, should be a community-led process and should be directly connected to mapping people’s ‘lived and living experience’. A desired scenario cannot get shaped inclusively if we haven’t dived deeply into community assets through mapping different individuals and groups’ experience attached to them.

Mapping the foodscapes from the perspective of young people- Redesigning neighborhoods to shift youth diets, Gehl -2019-Photo credit: Gehlpeople.com

A private parking lot, for instance, in a conventional asset mapping process might not even be regarded as a potential social space, but through listening to people’s stories, we might learn that the land owner makes this space occasionally available for a community vintage market event. The same scenario occasionally happens in private vacant lots in different Toronto neighborhoods that landowner provides temporary use of the space for community purposes (The story of Milky Way garden). Another example: A MC Donald’s, might not fit into our image of a locally-loved place, a place that feels like home or feels so convenient for a casual non-over-programmed hangout with neighbors. We might think how come a symbol of the mass market/big boxes (that generally are a gentrification driver) can be regarded as a local asset! Well, it might be, when it creates a sense of belonging and connection, when there are lots of shared stories and memories attached to it (‘Adding marcuse’ to … )

Every neighborhood is made of invaluable hidden assets as such; resources that, from the community’s perspective, keep or can potentially keep people connected, healthy, and happy, and thus should be taken seriously into account as potential resources that add to the quality of life of the neighborhood as a whole (Milky Way Garden became a community-owned land ). That doesn’t put question on the value and significance of certain assets such as parks and bike lanes which are more visible, the experience of communities with these physical and non-physical resources certainly plays a critical role in informing the planning.

The aim of participatory planning taking an asset lens is that building upon existing assets and seeking to identify through first-hand experience of people, what works well instead of just focusing on what is not working or trying to reinvent the wheel.

Taking an equity lens simultaneously, means that we are not seeking only to create services, places and experiences built on community’s assets but we also should ensure that different groups and individuals in the target neighborhood have equal access to these resources regardless of their physical, social or economic conditions. Only by engaging diverse community stakeholders that will use these resources and /or will be directly affected by utilizing these resources, we can understand how to make them accessible to all people in the community and to use them effectively to offer the same chances to embrace a concrete sense of well-being for all, and thus reduce the inequities. Take the example of the parking lot, if we hear community groups’ stories inclusively we might also find out that while this community-led event brings all diverse community members from residents and local business owners together, elderlies and people with disabilities often do not participate because the venue is so congested with population. So, as much as taking into account the best use of this potential asset is important, it is also critical to make the experience accessible for those who have been excluded, because people regardless of their situations want to and can use these resources effectively if they are accessible and affordable for them.

So, with no doubt , citizen participation in the process of decisions about their public spaces and shared resources is critical, but it also can be very risky if it happens in order to check off some legal boxes. Because if it happens in this symbolic way, it can create more challenges than it could have served. The minimum negative impact that it can create is citizen skepticism or conflicts among different stakeholders that lead to strong opposition to the proposed project/proposal/planning .

Before designing a participatory process, it is important to ask yourself the right questions and have genuine answers to all of them (2)

1- Why do we want to involve community members?

2- What is the main goal behind the citizen involvement?

3-What kinds of outputs are we hoping to get?

Question one refers to our fundamental check in with ourselves on the authenticity and ingenuity of the purpose of engagement, it sheds light on the level of engagement and the scope of outreach as well. Question two explores the types of information we need to know about the people and the context we are hoping to be engaged with, it also looks at how we can reach out to people to obtain that effectively. It doesn’t mean that we should have a preset estimation of the findings, rather it refers to having a clear understanding of our destination. for example, are we seeking to gain a better understanding of the place, or to help create a new vision for that place,or…. Likewise, Question three refers to the deliverables or takeaways from the engagement activities, i.e. what we are hoping to collect at the end of each or a series of activities; are we looking for qualitative information, quantitative information, design ideas and more visually-based inputs?, or a mix of all?

By clearly and genuinely answering these questions we can build a good foundation for our engagement plan and more specifically, what type of engagement activities to develop and what types of tools and techniques to apply. The next episode of this series will focus on co-creation tools in participatory planning. Stay tuned.


  1. Participatory Urban Planning: Planning the city with and for its citizens, the Montréal Urban Ecology Centre (MUEC), 2015

2) “How to put participatory urban planning into practice?”, Co-design the active city webinar, August 28, 2019 , available online at: https://participatoryplanning.ca/events/2019-how-put-participatory-urban-planning-practice



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My name is Marveh. I am a co-creation savvy. I love sharing stories about People, Land, Roots and Design.