A participatory process for a derelict site— how could it really work

Sustainable Just Cities
Blog on Sustainable Just Cities
5 min readMar 14, 2020


There’s a patch of empty State land in a working class neighbourhood with the first signs of gentrification. Council members keen for re-election. A supermarket angling to buy the property.

How would a participatory process with the local community to decide what to do with the land really work? Especially if the aim is to make the neighbourhood more just and sustainable?

This was the scenario presented by UrbanA team members Ian M Cook and Tom Henfrey in their session ‘Participatory approaches in practice’ at the UrbanA Arena Rotterdam.

Here’s a detailed report of what unfolded:-

Participants were given the following scenario: We are elected council members of a local government in a working class neighbourhood which is showing its first signs of gentrification— increasing rents, arty types, cool bars, people on scooters. There’s an election coming up, and we’re from the same political party as the central government. Accordingly, some central funds have been thrown our way to do something ‘noticeable’ in the next year (about enough money to build something, hire a couple of people for two years — obviously the actual amount this would cost depends on the local context). There’s a patch of state land where a condemned building was demolished (about 10 000 m2| 2.5 acres | 1 hectares | 110 000 feet2). Although there’s a bid to build an Aldi Supermarket on the site (which will bring in revenue from rent and tax), and another proposal to sell the land to a brother of a politician.

After attending an UrbanA event we want to do something to promote sustainable and just cities. And we want to get re-elected. There is a requirement for public input on projects of this size, but the shape and depth of the civic engagement is up to us. The last time the ‘community’ decided on what to do with a piece of land, they chose to create a park with a guard and a fence to keep out homeless people –this is popular amongst some residents.

Participants split into three groups to examine this scenario, through discussion and application.

Their first task was to think about what participation means: to identify the goals of participation and in doing so identify possible benefits and problems.

Their second was to design a participatory process that could realise the goals raised in the given scenario.

The aim was to understand the multiple conflicting interests and unintended consequences that can arise in participatory approaches, and the importance of careful process design to navigating these.

Discussions continue at the UrbanA Arena Rotterdam session

Each group presented its results as follows:

Group 1. The core of the proposal was to create a citizen-led project through a series of participation processes aimed at: 1) Identifying ideas and proposals that come from citizens 2) Supporting a citizen-led evaluation of these proposals 3) Creating a framework for citizen-led monitoring of the progress of the selected project. Specific methods and principles that might enable this were:

Approach specific groups able to engage or represent stakeholder groups that are often absent from public participation processes (e.g. immigrants, women’s groups, elderly)

Hold many meetings in different places and at different times, in order to be more inclusive

Within these processes: present any existing research or information about the needs of the neighbourhood or city, open up to new and emerging proposals and inform people about limiting factors (e.g. legal, financial and technical constraints)

Form expert citizen committees to express ideas and to participate in the selection process

Provide an online platform or app to enable wide participation in voting

Compensate people for their time, providing care options during meetings and other events (child care etc.) and dinner/lunch.

Key limitations and challenges identified by this group were how to hire experts who are also local residents, and how to represent and serve different interest groups.

Group 2. The second group presented a similar proposal based on some sort of a competition to collect and select ideas, making sure everyone is included and that all proposals considered are feasible. Specific suggestions included:

Work together with social scientists to map out social needs!Hold workshops that specifically target different stakeholder groups

Compensate participants for their involvement

Form a citizen assembly to take responsibility for assessment

After 2 or 3 years, conduct a people’s assessment (also as a participatory process) to record levels of public satisfaction with the project and its outcomes

Presenting participatory process proposals at the UrbanA Arena

Group 3. The third group also presented a similar proposal, with the following additional specific recommendations:

Keep everything open source

Hold open workshops and other activities, both to inform the municipality and to ensure developments return into dialogue with the community

They also noted a key challenge, that participatory processes can require substantial resources — but that such investment is always worthwhile and cost-effective due to the long-term savings of time and money in the future.

Closing session

We closed the session by reflecting on some common themes and approaches. It was interesting that only one of the groups thought to involve experts — planners, social scientists, etc. — in any significant way.

The need to have funding for participatory process was stressed by all.

Given more time, we might have been able to reflect on drivers of injustice not only arising within to participation processes directly, but also the contextual injustices that underly pressures on the empty patch of land itself.

Finally, we got some bad news: whilst we were busy with the planning process, a member of the local government sold the land to a supermarket.



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