‘A fuzzy and fertile ground’: embedding participation in urban transformation

by Francesca Perry

British Ambassador's residence, Paris

Off the hectic Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, we slip through enormous gates into a haven of peace, an oasis of great history blooming in the city. In the British Ambassador’s grand residence in Paris, dozens of academics and practitioners from France and the UK come together on a scorchingly hot day to discuss urban transformation and attempt to co-create solutions to many of the challenges our cities are facing today.

For our workshop on community involvement, we sit in the historic throne room, the sunshine from outside amplified by the luminous chandeliers. The doors open to the still gardens, the sound of live jazz wafts in to tinge our meeting with an incongruous romanticism. The Americans at the embassy next door rehearse for independence celebrations. We try to plan for better cities, together.

We are, of course, keenly aware of our own privileged setting as we discuss supporting positive urban environments for diverse communities. We listen to stories of history and the present, of people and places from around the globe. We think of process and possibilities, of failures and futures. Does ‘community’, as a static and coherent concept, even exist? It is a deeply problematic term – and one that we discover means very different things in Paris and London – but its problematised nature should not stop us from thinking about people and the environments in which they live; there are indeed multiple layers of community, a panoply of networks that interact in social and spatial ways in our cities.

But it is unfortunately rare for those needs and aspirations of people living or working in a place to be holistically embedded in the urban development process. We see places shaped insensitively by top down visions, and reactions bubbling up – as they do – in bottom up ways. But what does this hallowed ideal of ‘top down meets bottom up’ really look like? It is something that through incremental experimentation and evaluation we can hopefully arrive at; a ‘fuzzy and fertile ground’, suggests our workshop leader Dr Kevin Thwaites.

The tensions between development and gentrification crop up throughout our discussions. How do we improve areas for everyone without gentrifying them? We must first ensure that the bones and the heart of the place and the people are maintained and sustained – that is, both the facilities people use and rely on, and the existing character people value about their area. Furthermore, by embedding participation – rather than simply consultation – as a key process, by shifting the education and approach of built environment professionals from manufacturing to facilitation, by enabling and including people in change – we can begin to create, support, or even ‘edit’ better cities.

Professionals cannot simply design and build for a so-called ‘community’, but they can ensure that the right processes are in place to empower the people who live and work in an area to be actively involved in shaping and maintaining it. With participation comes co-ownership, and with co-ownership comes real sustainability – both social and environmental.

What we need designers to design in cities is in fact flexibility and adaptability. ‘Nothing will change until we change what we ask of architects,’ presses Dr Thwaites; ‘stop asking for material product, start asking for fulfilled lives.’

In these ever-changing organisms of multiple communities and multiple neighbourhoods that we call cities, we have the opportunity to start transforming our notion of value: wellbeing is surely a better leading concept for change and for design – in terms of material, spatial and social infrastructure – than other values that focus on the benefit of the few rather than the many.


Transforming Cities, Transforming Lives: Future Perspectives was an event that took place on 3 July 2014 at the British Embassy in Paris. Follow the hashtag #BE200 on Twitter to read more about the event and the 200th anniversary activities of the British Ambassador’s Residence.


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