Perceptions & Conceptions of our Built Environment

Understanding the confluence of decolonial thinking, participatory practice and the design of built environments.

Nikhila Madabhushi
Published in
4 min readSep 12, 2020


Current literature on decolonial thinking and participatory practice stand distinct from one another, despite their philosophical interconnectedness. While the former is only in its infancy in the built environment context, participatory practice has been offered as a social impact-oriented version of “stakeholder engagement” for architectural and urban projects for several decades. Various design thinking methodologies have in more recent times fortified Nabeel Hamdi’s well-documented tools for activating participation at all scales and geographies of built environment production. The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design implores designers to be empaths — or human-centred¹—offering up a ‘how to’ guide in the form of hundreds of ‘tools’ that can be selected and connected together to form workshops that might assist clients or beneficiaries to develop values or desires for a given project. However, the power remains in the hands of the designer, who ultimately owns the data and can do what they will with it. IDEO suggests that lateral mindsets are critical to being an empathetic designer. Although non-linearity is expressed as a necessary means by which to achieve an end goal — iterate and re-iterate, go backwards to go forwards — IDEO’s macro process is ultimately linear and geared at implementation for the sake of the designer.

On the contrary, Hamdi asserts that in the first instance we are all ‘placemakers’.² He suggests that clients, beneficiaries, professionals and consultants are a subset of the placemaker role. His disruption of these binary relationships creates a degree of horizontality in perceptions and conceptions of the built environment. Production becomes an outcome-oriented process that delivers a collective socio-spatial outcome, which aims for a lasting societal impact. In other words, as designers or architects, we can engage our spatial intelligence as a catalyst to allow the latent spatial intelligence of our fellow placemakers to emerge.³ For this to occur, however, space and time (metaphoric and literal) need to be created for everyone at the table to define what space is to them. This approach stands in contradiction to many modes of built environment production where the expert is also the ‘vetter’ of content—to use Arnstein’s idiom of participation characterised by ‘degrees of tokenism’.⁴

Studying Hội An’s flood resilience.

On decoloniality as a methodology, Smith reminds us that the dominant western view of space is one that is largely divorced from time⁵; the built environment is a product. She asserts the Māori word for space and time as being the same. This is something reflected in many indigenous languages, albeit not to be homogenised in terms of the social or spiritual implications of this connection across cultures. Smith’s conception of decolonial space is one that might be just as much about processes towards conception than it is about the output. This notion reveals the potential for framing spatial dilemmas faced by diverse residents of a given neighbourhood as perhaps socio-spatial ones, whereby the built environment — including different perceptions and conceptions of it — is also rendered as a producer of social change, not only a static deliverable.

The two schools of thought might merge to unlock each other’s potential for a praxis that addresses decolonial approaches to the design of built and spatial environments. Moreover, might we gain new ways of knowing if we use both described methods in tandem, due to their potentially complementary nature?

While participatory models offer documented tools, decoloniality offers a conceptual framework that the former can sit within. While decolonial thinking is often seen as synonymous with post-colonial theory, there is a vital distinction: the former offers a call to action that perhaps the latter does not. Though debated at times, post-colonial theory has historically stood for intellectual provocations voiced by scholars ‘of colour’ rather than a dialogical modus operandi.⁶ Conversely, decolonial thinking suggests that the very problem with coloniality is epistemology or in simple terms, the way we know things.⁷ This question of knowledge and how we know what we know is open for all of us to ask. As such, many frameworks and tools offered by sincere participatory models deconstruct the researcher-researched dichotomy. This is achieved by granting time to undertake participatory processes in order to determine, for instance, a design brief before its delivery, but also the mixed modes by which intelligence is gathered. This could be drawing, modelling, site exploration, role play, sensory communication tools and beyond. These processes are not simply the researcher’s suite of tools to collect data but are tacit methods offered by the researcher or facilitator for participants to employ, in order to convey their spatial aspirations, to themselves and one another.

“The tools were like children’s games — and initially seemed embarrassing to indulge in as a professionally qualified urban planner. Yet they yielded amazingly useful information and did so in a really fast, easy and fun way.”

— Anshu Sharma⁸

[1]: “The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design.” IDEO, 2015.

[2]: Hamdi, Nabeel. The Placemakers’ Guide to Building Community. Tools for Community Planning. London ; Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2010.

[3]: Till, Jeremy. “Urban Weaving.” In 6(0) Ways-- Artistic Practice in Culturally Diverse Times, edited by Lilet Breddels, Lex ter Braak, and Steven van Teeseling, 52–57. Rotterdam: NAI Publishers, 2010.

[4]: Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder Of Citizen Participation.” Journal of the American Institute of Planners 35, no. 4 (July 1969): 216–24.

[5]: Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Second edition. London: Zed Books, 2012.

[6]: Mignolo, Walter D. “DELINKING: The Rhetoric of Modernity, the Logic of Coloniality and the Grammar of de-Coloniality.” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2–3 (March 2007): 449–514.

[7]: ibid.

[8]: Hamdi op.cit.